Conflict Resolution: A manual for inclusive resistance, social justice and environmental defense groups

Conflict resolution is a process using the principles of non-violent communication in which we explore the competing needs that lead to arguments, tension and conflict among people.

In Extinction Rebellion, we are working together toward the same goal. But we may have different ideas of how to do that. Some of us may be focused on our particular tasks and not realize that our actions somehow interfere with the tasks of other rebels. We may find ourselves in a situation where resources we need are scarce. Sometimes another rebel may cause another’s needs to go unmet, usually unintentionally.

Creative Commons image by charlieCe of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by charlieCe of Flickr.com

This is how conflict arises in all activist and volunteer groups. It is inevitable. We have learned from generations of civil disobedience and non-violent protest movements around the world that internal conflict is the single greatest threat to our movements, much more destructive than any outside hostile force. Most non-violent protest movements that fail collapse or gradually decline, due to internal conflict.

And yet, we have also learned from experience that suppressing conflict, pretending it isn’t there, smoothing it over or forcibly shutting it down do not work. In the long-run, suppressed  conflict returns in one form or another and the longer it simmers, the more disruptive it becomes.

Therefore, we must find ways to resolve conflict which actually mitigate harm to all. The key to that kind of resolution is recognizing and meeting everyone’s needs to the best of our ability. Conflict resolution is the process of understanding and then meeting those needs, so that conflict dissipates rather than simmering or disrupting.

What standards guide conflict resolution?

We developed this guide for Regenerative Culture workers in Extinction Rebellion in the Czech Republic but it can be used effectively by anyone working in community, social or volunteer organizations. Here are some principles and standards that will help.

  • We recognize that conflict is inevitable. There is no need for shame or blame when conflict arises. Non-violent communication is the primary tool in conflict resolution.

  • If it is necessary to intervene with someone who is behaving in a disruptive or abusive manner, we do not confront this person in public online spaces. We use the non-violent communication process to address the problem directly and openly either in person, if at all possible, or in private messages, if a personal meeting is impossible.

  • If a conflict between two or more rebels affects the group or threatens to harm a group, the conflict resolution process is open to the group. Conflict that affects the group’s functioning is not a private matter. It affects us all.

  • Conflict resolution can be carried out within a local group or a working group autonomously using this handbook and non-violent communication skills. If a conflict resolution team is available to mediate, mediation may be called for.

  • We are committed to confronting elements of the toxic system which cause harm to vulnerable groups. If a conflict involves social exclusion, bullying, racism, misogyny, ableism, nationalism, homophobia or other manifestations of toxic social systems, we take this into account and confront these systems and their residues in ourselves.

  • Mediation will favor more socially vulnerable persons, if there is an accusation of harassment or bullying.

What practical guidelines will help ensure these standards?

  • Review and renew your group’s principles and values against discrimination/oppressive behaviors and for inclusion, equality and ethics. Hearing this announced to the group periodically has been proven in studies to decrease incidence of harassment as well as social exclusion in groups. It also makes vulnerable demographics feel welcome and safe.

  • Make clear at the start of trainings and intermittently in meetings that non-violent communication ought to be used and is part of your commitment to non-violence.

  • Review and renew your shared vision. In Extinction Rebellion, we are all fighting for our lives. When we have conflict between us, it is crucial to take a moment to bring forward the awareness that the person or people standing on the other side of the tension from me are fighting for their lives as well, possibly in a different way or with different priorities or communication/work styles.

  • Encourage short feedback loops in listening - feeding back in real time something that you had a reaction to, e.g. ‘It sounded to me as though your tone was a little tense just then. Is that correct/is everything OK?’ or ‘I don’t like it when you call me that - I feel very uncomfortable when this interaction happens,’ as long as these remain within the non-violent communication structure of observation without evaluation and statements of feelings in reaction.

  • Encourage a “step forward/step back“ attitude - taking personal responsibility and self awareness, making space for others to speak/be seen when one has been prominent for whatever reason OR challenging ourselves to speak up if we don’t usually.

  • NO GOSSIP policy: NO conflicts to be taken on social media at any point.


There are two processes for conflict resolution

  • Process ONE is for situations in which all participants in a conflict can meet.

  • Process TWO is for situations in which participants cannot meet because it would not be safe and there is a risk of harm to someone.

Process ONE

This is a Clearing Process for dealing with conflict--mutual or highlighted by one party. This requires both parties and a facilitator to be in the same space and only works if all participants agree to follow the process and bring good intention and a listening ear.

Agree a time and comfortable space to meet, agree on length of process and make sure you have everything you need, e.g. water, tissues etc 

Use I statements and allow time for reflection and pauses in process. 

Step 1: Setting up the atmosphere and intention

  • All participants to share some element of gratitude, e.g. ‘the sunshine on my walk here’

  • All participants to share their intentions - how they will conduct themselves through the process and how they’d like to feel at the end, e.g. ‘I will try and listen with an open mind and I’d like to feel at peace with you/this situation and be able to work well together’

Step 2: Seeking unity on the Facts:

  • One or the other party in a conflict may volunteer to go first. If an accusation is at the center of the conflict, the accuser should generally go first. If it is difficult to agree who should go first, flip a coin.

  • Person A shares their perception of the facts of what happened, the time, context, content etc. What would a video camera have observed? (No interruptions beyond reminders to avoid evaluation or judgmental terminology. Time limits may be set and may be amended if there is need.)

  • Person B does the same.

  • Facilitator: Observe where the facts are the same and where they are different. Acknowledging that two different perceptions may both be honest and authentic. We perceive differently from different perspectives.

Step 3: Awareness of feelings

  • Person A shares when they first felt negative emotions in the interaction, e.g. “when you said, xyz I felt angry.” Ask person A to try and go deeper into what is under the initial reaction ‘under the anger, I felt undermined/afraid.’ Get to the most basic feeling. 

  • Remind participants that the fact that someone feels something is a fact. The feeling is indisputable and does not imply blame. We are ultimately responsible for our feelings ourselves. Empathy lies in acknowledging the difficulty others experience when they feel negative feelings.

  • Peron B reflects back, e.g. “I hear that you felt angry when I said xyz and below the anger you felt that I was undermining you and you were afraid.”

  • Any clarification needed?

  • Peron B can then share how they feel in that moment in regards to what A has shared and how they felt during the triggering interaction.

  • Person A reflects back what they have heard. Any clarification?

  • Ask both participants to reflect silently or openly if they wish on previous experiences when they felt the same difficult emotions they experienced in this interaction. How is the situation different this time?

  • Ask both participants if they want to ask for forgiveness for any hurt that was caused, any action that was out of alignment with that person’s good intentions, any ripple effects that came from that person's words/actions.

Step 4: Awareness of needs

  • Both participants now reflect and share needs, e.g. “I need time and attention to take a breath before responding in the heat of the moment, I need reassurance that my work is valued, I need to clear boundaries to feel safe in interactions.”

  • Guide participants to break down their needs to universal human needs, rather than requests for specific actions at this time. “Reassurance” is a universal human need. “For you to reassure me” is a specific request.

  • Each participant reflects back what they have heard the other participant needs. The needs are statements of fact. That a person has a universal human need isn’t disputable.

  • Needs may conflict. It is not automatically the responsibility of the other party to meet the needs spoken. Solutions may begin to become apparent at this stage though. We resolve conflict by first developing empathy by understanding each other’s perceptions and feelings and by finding creative solutions in which everyone’s needs are met.

Step 5: Making requests

  • Personal A may have requests of the other person, eg “Would you be willing to…” Requests may attempt to find a way to ensure that needs will not conflict.

  • Person B may agree or say, ‘No, but I could do …’ also with meeting the needs of all in mind. Note that self-sacrificing so that one’s own needs are overly delayed will likely not be sustainable.

  • Person B may have requests, also begining with the word, “Would you be willing to…”

  • Person A may agree or offer a different solution. 

Step 6: Finding resolution

  • Review action points that A and B are taking away.

  • Agree on times for A and B to check in again soon.

  • A and B reflect on how they feel at the end of the process and what they take away from it. Give gratitude as appropriate.

  • Check in with A and B later to make sure the follow up check in between them happens. Some issues may require another cleaning process, if something new has arisen.  

Process TWO

 In case of individual feeling unsafe to go through Clearing Process with other person present this procedure for dealing with cases of harassment, bullying or unwelcome behavior is in place.

 If a complaint of harassment, bullying, ostracism or unwelcome behavior is brought to the attention of the Conflict Resolution Team, prompt action must be taken to investigate the matter and action taken to remedy the complaint.

Anyone who wishes to make a complaint of harassment, bullying or unwelcome behavior is encouraged to first discuss matters with someone who they trust, ideally a Group Coordinator or someone from the Regenerative Culture Group. This is to take some time to get clear on what happened and how to engage with the process, e.g. finding a facilitator to hold the Clearing Process and approaching the other person to see if they will engage with process

If the person feels unable/unsafe to sit in the Clearing then the advocate can approach them on the complainant’s behalf. The complainant does not need to prove they are unsafe. However, complaints should be clear and specific, when brought to Process 2. Counseling may be sought from the Regenerative Culture group in order to clarify complaints.

It may be possible in this way to resolve the issue by getting the individual(s) in question to see how their behavior could be classed as harassment or bullying and to agree to desist from that behavior. Very often people are not aware that their behavior is unwelcome or misunderstood and an informal discussion can lead to greater understanding and agreement that the behavior will cease. Complainants are therefore encouraged to try, if they feel able to do so, to resolve the problem informally by making it clear to the alleged harasser that their actions are unwanted and should not be repeated.

An individual, who is made aware that their behavior is unacceptable, is asked to:

  • Listen carefully to the complaints and the particular concerns raised;

  • Respect the other person’s point of view; everyone has a right to work in an environment free from harassment, ostracism, intimidation, discrimination and social exclusion;

  • Understand and acknowledge that the other person’s reaction/perception to another’s behavior (the impact) is more important than the intention behind the behavior;

  • Agree the aspects of behavior that will change;

  • Review their general conduct/behavior when working with others.

  • Confirm that they actively want to follow respectful and inclusive principles and values. Failure to do so could result in them being asked to discontinue association with the group, regardless of what seniority, authority or responsibility they have attained in the group.

If, between the complainant and the supporting individual the issue seems too complex or serious to handle alone, a meeting of some members of the Conflict Resolution group and those trained in non-violent communication and Peacemaking can be called to look at the details of what has happened and decide on appropriate course of action.

When dealing with a complaint of harassment in this way, 

  • Full details of the incident(s) should be taken in writing from the complainant and their supporting person (if appropriate). Complaints need to be as clear, objectively-worded and specific as possible to enable specific resolution.

  • Full details should be taken from any witnesses/other complainants who come forward and may have witnessed the alleged behavior

  • The alleged harasser should be informed of the complaints against them. They should be invited to a meeting in order that they can comment on the allegations against them. 

  • People’s involvement with the group could be frozen whilst investigations are being made.

  • All parties need to be kept informed of expected timescales for how the situation will be dealt with.

  • All parties should be fully informed of the outcome and any action that may be required.

A decision will be reached collectively by appropriate members of the Conflict Resolution Group, and any appropriate Coordinators as to the best course of action, working with the complainant to ensure they find the course of action acceptable to their sense of safety and peace of mind. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Making clear to the harasser that they are no longer able to work with the group (in sufficiently serious cases).  

  • Giving a warning that the harasser will only be able to continue working with the group if their behavior does not revert, at which point they will be asked to leave.         

  • Finding a way for the complainant and harasser to work in different groups where they will have little overlap. The complainant should be given priority in where they want to work.

  • In more serious cases: The group may announce publicly that they are not associated with the person in question or a restraining order may be placed.

  • False accusations of harassment or other inappropriate behavior—found to be false through investigation—may also result in the group distancing from the complainant.

Instances of harassment, bullying and unwelcome behavior are rarely neatly defined, and processes dealing with them will require flexibility. As such, some flexibility from the above procedure is both likely and acceptable (i.e. doesn’t necessarily invalidate the entire process).

A line drawn in stone

What precisely separates Extinction Rebellion from Nazis, Stalinists and other massive, disruptive movements?

There once was a young man named Thomas who grew up in poverty and without hope, until one day a leader and a movement came and gave him hope and something to fight for.

He marched and demonstrated for a better future. He worked alongside others like him and felt the thrill of idealism and the bond of solidarity.

But his movement was the Hitler Youth. And as an old man he gave me a warning.

In another time and another place, there was a seventeen-year-old girl named Marie who followed a more decentralized, grassroots movement. She too had seen hardship and despair all around her. This movement wasn't just against something. It was for something--for equality and justice.

She knew hope and was willing to die for her cause. As an old woman living in the ashes and rubble of the Soviet Union, she showed me the Stalinist pins she collected that year she was seventeen.

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

After decades passed and the world changed, there was a young student of nineteen named Jan, idealistic, yet savvy. He'd studied all of the history and he knew to be on guard against power-hungry leaders. He beat the pavement and struggled none-the-less.

His band of anarchists and revolutionaries organized a few anti-globalization demonstrations, kept their independence and managed not to fall into the pitfalls of the past. But finally bickering and exhaustion took them down. Jan left his ideals behind and joined the exploitative world of unsustainable business-as-usual he had once raged against.

Again time rolled by and now there is a sixteen-year-old girl named Josefina wielding hope against despair. There is a movement and a stark black symbol on a flag.

This time the fight is not just against poverty, hunger and injustice, though it is about all that. It is a fight for our very lives, for the last hope of a future where our children will even be alive.

If there has ever been a worthy struggle, this is it.

All around the world, people are rallying and demanding change. I have been in activism for thirty-odd years and I have never seen a movement grow like this, doubling in weeks, raising people out of quiet backwaters in the middle of a sweltering, lazy summer to come to meetings and organize action.

i was sixteen when I met Thomas and I didn't judge him because he had never been in it for hatred and he regretted it. And because I too wished for a movement that would give me hope. I only knew I didn't want to fall for something corrupted as he had and idealism seemed a discredited thing for a lost generation.

I was twenty-five when I sat with Marie and I had been an activist but I didn't feel I belonged anywhere. A lot of my friends said they just weren't joiners, but I wanted to be a joiner. I just didn't see anything worth joining.

There were causes and activist organizations, but many of them had all the warning signs of cliquish social exclusivity, abuse of power, cult-like dynamics, unreliability, lack of accountability or demands that were either too watered down and vague or too specific and exclusionary. Even Jan's movement, though I personally liked him, had many of those flaws.

Now, I am forty-three and I stand in awe next to Josefina on the front line of an Extinction Rebellion blockade. This is where I make my stand.

Here in the Czech Republic an internet meme recently appeared showing the XR hourglass symbol with the caption: "The Nazis had the swastika. The Stalinists had the hammer. The climate-ists have this."

And most of our rebels just laughed at it. They made fun of it and passed it around on the internet as a joke. "Haha. How twisted!" But I didn't laugh.

What is it exactly that separates us from the early Nazis or Stalinists or other "idealistic" movements that went bad and turned to genocide?

We either answer that question unequivocally or we have no right to call the likes of Josefina to stand with us.

We are vast and incredibly fast growing. We are uncompromising in our convictions and we're willing to do almost anything to achieve our goals. We are willing to disrupt the lives of ordinary people.

We demand sacrifices for the greater good and for the future. We are done talking and discussing. When climate deniers come along and want to engage us in a long discussion about the science, we send them a few documents and then block them on social media if necessary.

Ain't nobody got time for that. We are in a fight for our lives and the lives of our children.

So, what is it? What makes us the good kind of massive, disruptive mob?

We are non-violent. Sure, we are, but not every climate activist is. And many an idealistic movement started out declaring non-violence. We like to talk about Gandhi and the US civil rights movement. And those are good examples but not every social movement that starts out non-violent ends that way and some end up simply being the non-violent wing of something that goes bad.

So, I don't think it is a laughing matter to ask this question. We ourselves say we are facing the very real likelihood of massive death, caused by climate change. Is it so hard to imagine that in ten years, as the crisis deepens and great numbers of people are thrown into desperation for survival, that our massive, coordinated movement could become a force for hurt?

It is not hard for me to imagine and that is why I am determined to put my energies into a safeguard.

Non-violence is a good start. But it is the concept of Regenerative Culture, developed over generations of activist experience, from the US civil rights movement to the anti-nuclear blockades in the UK, through the anti-fracking movement to today's Extinction Rebellion, that makes this movement different.

As my readers know, I'm mostly blind and I've seen my share of social exclusion and bad human behavior in my time. When I walked into my first Extinction Rebellion meeting, I had my doubts and skepticism. I'd seen enough examples of flaky, egotistical and/or slapdash activist groups to be wary.

And that first meeting blew my mind. Not only were they organized but there was a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that I have rarely encountered in groups of any kind. I didn't know it then, but that atmosphere was no accident caused by the people in the room just happening to be well-adjusted and nice.

It comes from a consciously developed and conscientiously implemented practice called "Regenerative Culture," which incorporates social inclusion, mutual support, conscious awareness, rigorous non-violent communication training, social sustainability and self care.

The concept of Regenerative Culture is not a nice, fluffy extra added onto Extinction Rebellion activities to make good atmosphere at meetings and sing songs during blockades. Instead it is the bedrock on which the foundations of the movement have been laid.

That is why we are different and as long as we don't ever lose sight of it, it will guarantee we don't go either toward tyranny or toward dissolution. At its core, Regenerative Culture is that line, a line that must be drawn in stone, not in sand.

The fact is that everyone thinks they are the good guys. Thomas thought he was just reaching for hope. Marie thought she was standing for justice. Jan was convinced that his activist group, not the one next door, was the only hope for social justice.

And in Extinction Rebellion we are equally convinced that we are right. We have now ninety-nine percent of climate scientists saying we are correct that human activities are destabilizing our climate, that this will have devastating and lethal effects and that we have a few short years to change course. We have reason to be staunch in our convictions.

The difference lies in how we treat one another first and second how we treat others.

The elements of Regenerative Culture are:

  • Non-violence in action

  • Non-violent communication

  • Respectful behavior toward all, including those who insult, jail, beat or kill us

  • Mutual support materially and emotionally

  • Acceptance of everyone and every part of every one

  • No shame and no blame

  • Rotating roles of power

  • A focus on amplifying the voices of underrepresented population groups

  • Self-care and prevention of burn-out

It is impossible to convey the entirety of Regenerative Culture in one post. I will be posting more about this, including this week’s post on conflict resolution in groups for inclusive resistance, social justice and environmental defense here.

Not all opinions are equal

I have always wanted to be for peace.

The peacemakers of today’s well-connected world cry, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion! Just scroll on past!”

And I find that I cannot be a peacemaker because all opinions are not created equal.

There are opinions about whether this or that candidate is better. There are opinions about how we should manage the city water problem. There are opinions about which health care or tax policy is best. And generally those opinions are all equal. I may disagree with one or more, but I am happy to listen and let live.

Hate is hate no matter its shape ableism meme.jpg

It’s when an opinion is hate against a person or group of people due to circumstances beyond their control that it is no longer an opinion, or at least no longer equal.

Many pundits blame social media for the angry divides of today’s society. And I can see why. Social media is where a lot of arguments happen.

But social media is designed to send us what we like. The algorithms of the various sites don’t send us everything available but rather place us in bubbles of mostly those who agree with us. We only encounter a fraction of the differing opinions out there.

Social media doesn’t set out to create conflict. Quite the opposite. But technology has become a great leveler.

I think it is more that relatively cheap and portable technology has given voices to everyone and blurred lines of geography. It makes the saying, “Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere,” more palpable.

The fact is that the world was NOT less divided thirty years ago or a hundred years ago. It was more divided.

But privileged people didn’t know about most of it and those experiencing the most injustice had only each other to talk to about their exploitation. The world was more segregated and groups deemed unsightly either stayed out of sight or were put out of sight.

Today the world is not any more divided than it was, but we know about more divides than we used to. Opinions and the actions they engendered which harmed less privileged groups were not often challenged because the harmed groups had no voice and no access to the places where the privileged relaxed and talked.

Now that social media is that place and technology has allowed almost everyone in, we are confronted by those we have opinions about. And they talk back..

I grew up in remote, rural Eastern Oregon, an area that voted 70 percent for Trump in 2016 and which was almost entirely white when I was a child.

When my mom first arrived in the area to homestead with my father, she saw a black family at a gas station in the tiny town of Elgin. She went up to them gladly. Black people had taken her in when she had to leave home at seventeen and she was overjoyed to see their faces. But the father told her they were leaving because of the rampant racism and ostracism in the area.

They left and that was that. No more “divide” in the community.

When I heard racist jokes at school as a child, I didn’t call them out the way I do on Facebook. I kept my head down because as a kid with a disability, I got plenty of bullying as it was. It wasn’t a “divide” because I had no voice, no possibility of standing up, and People of Color were simply elsewhere.

Now we see a divide. Before we could pretend it didn’t exist because those who were vulnerable hid it to survive or were so far removed from us that we never saw or heard from them.

Opening up, people who were shut away walking out in public, the formerly silenced having a voice—these things are not divisive. It is not the “evil” of social media that creates the strife.

It is bigotry and judgementalism. It has always been there. Now it is being challenged.

I welcome differences of opinion when they are not about judging and mistreating others. It is really that simple. Not all opinions are equal. You are entitled to your opinion so long as it does not incite hatred or judgment against others for characteristics they did not choose… or even for things they did choose in so far as they have no bearing on anyone beyond themselves.

Ridiculing a person with a disability, accusing them of “faking” or declaring what you think they should not be allowed to do or have responsibility for is not an “opinion.” It’s an attack for the purpose of silencing and dismissing people.

I am fine with discussing health care policy and climate policy and immigration control and medical ethics with varied viewpoints. What is not open for discussion and what will get comments deleted without warning are those opinions which specifically judge and attack people for reasons that are innate to them.

People standing up to judgement, on the other hand, are welcome. Our voices only sound strident or hot-tempered because they are rusty from too much silence.

Fair warning.

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.

Restocking

  • 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!

Considering the uses of a border wall

My brain is a trouble-maker. I swear it isn’t really me. Just my brain.

Every other time I write something online it brings out the attack dogs. I try to tell my brain to cool it. But my brain is like, “Look at this! Just take a look at the facts!”

  • As early as the 1970s, Exxon (now ExxonMobil), the world’s largest oil company, had convincing evidence of the threat of climate change connected to the burning of fossil fuels. For decades they responded by funding misinformation campaigns in an effort to conceal the evidence, but their own scientists were well aware of the truth. The wealthy individuals and corporations, who now fund the campaigns of the most powerful policy makers and also fund climate change denial spin, have all the data. They know that they are lying.

  • The most widely supported current models for climate change predict that even with the international goal of limiting climate change to a 2°C global temperature rise much of Central America, the Middle East and North Africa could become uninhabitable or at least unfarmable. These regions. which already experience significant drought, will likely have so little water by 2050 that widespread and extreme famine is probable. (I know it happens to be cold right now for many of us, but in Australia the daytime temperature is melting car tires. The small global temperature rise is just an indicator scientists use to talk about a much more complex change. It’s the extreme drought in farm country that will probably end up troubling you.)

  • Border walls are the new “in” thing internationally. All over the world countries have gone from high-tech border security solutions to the medieval wall tactic. At the end of WWII, there were only seven border walls or fences around the world. Today there are seventy-seven. Several of them have been erected specifically because of climate migration, such as the massive 1,700 mile barbed wire fence between relatively prosperous India and low-lying Bangladesh, which is densely populated and loses more of its land area to flooding from rising oceans each year.

  • Europe has already witnessed crowds of desperate, climate refugees massing at border barricades and being forced back .

  • Trump’s campaign promise of a border wall—together with the supposition that Mexico would pay for it—was so cartoonish that even his supporters didn’t seem to entirely believe him. Trump supporters at the time were often on TV saying, “I don’t care if Mexico really pays it, but I love that he says it.” But now Trump has made significant political and economic sacrifice in an attempt to force the construction and US-tax-payer financing of his border wall.

  • Illegal crossings over the southern US border are at an all-time low. Most “illegal migration” in the US today involves people arriving by air and overstaying their vises. And rising illegal migration from Asia is currently a bigger issue than that from Central America. It is more than strange that Trump is insisting on this wall now. Analysts pass it off as crowd-pleasing for his anti-immigrant base. But the political and economic costs of the lengthy government shutdown go beyond crowd pleasing and seem likely to sour even Trump’s supporters.

Too complicated? OK, boil that down:

  1. The border wall isn’t needed for real security now.

  2. Trump is making significant sacrifices to get a border wall.

  3. Elites all over the world are building border walls, particularly against areas hit by climate disasters.

  4. Climate change analysis warns that Central America could become uninhabitable through drought and famine within decades.

  5. Trump and his primary supporters in the fossil fuel industry have had access to evidence of this very climate change longer than anyone else.

“So….” my brain winks suggestively.

OK, I’ll say it, though it will no doubt bring the attack dogs out yet again.

I think it is possible that Trump is well aware that the border wall will not help with current security, but his vehement insistence and significant sacrifices to ensure that it is built actually are rooted in rational—if cold-blooded—reasoning.

If climate change creates massive, unending drought in Central America there will not just be caravans of refugees or migrant workers. There will be waves of starving people.

Creative Commons image by Thomas & Dianne Jones

Creative Commons image by Thomas & Dianne Jones

Millions of starving people.

We have seen a military-style response on the border with tear-gas being fired at refugees. I fear that we are being prepared for a new normal, in which we will be outraged, but in the end, helpless to stop a full military defense at a border wall with deadly ammunition in a situation in which food and most particularly water have become significantly more scarce commodities.

Do I have proof?

Not more than the facts piling up. I don’t have a memo from fossil fuel execs to Trump directing him to stick to his guns on the border wall or we’ll be invaded by millions of starving climate refugees, which by sheer numbers would probably spark actual economic hardship rather than the economic boost that current immigration brings to the country.

No, but the general public has just about everything short of that.

Am I just being alarmist and depressing?

I know that things like this tend to demotivate and depress people, as in, “The future is bleak. Let’s go drink and binge watch Netflix.”

Nope. Not helpful.

What is helpful is recognizing the deeper reasons behind policies and addressing root causes. Until now, we may not have considered immigration reform advocates and climate activists to be close allies, but we should be. Not only would the physical wall itself harm delicate desert ecosystems and perpetuate inhumane foreign and immigration policies, it is also very possibly a crutch to allow the fossil fuel industry and their bought policy makers to continue to ignore the immanent threat of climate change.

Just saying.

You don't have to forgive

I’ve been staring at photos of Jemel Roberson for almost two weeks now. Every violent death of innocent people—there have been so many lately—is a tragedy. Every time the police in the US kill a black person for no conceivable reason, other than prejudice and disregard for their lives, it’s an outrage.

But there is something about Roberson that has me by the throat. It grabbed me even before I saw the pictures of him with his nine-month-old baby. It’s the context. He saved people from a mass shooting, yet another one. He did what all those who oppose sensible gun regulations keep saying some good guy with a gun must do. And then they shot him dead.

And I watch black men and women speak about it—calmly, with dignity, with tightly controlled emotions. I don’t think I could talk about it in person without getting upset. Writing has always been easier for me that way.

But of course, I’m not black. I haven’t been forcibly taught to control my emotions or hide outrage to such an extreme. I respect that dignified control. I try to emulate it without much success. Today it makes me think of an incident that happened at my house, which was a lesson on self-control, manners and forgiveness.

My daughter bursts in the front door, breathless and wide-eyed. “They called her “black face!’” she gasps.

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

My husband just drove up with my daughter and her Nigerian friend from the city, age 8, in the car.

“Who?” I spin around. Our little town is very, very white, something my slightly brown children are all too aware of.

Still gasping out each word, my daughter points out to the road. She says both my son and a boy visiting us from across town ran up to my daughter’s friend when she got out of the car and started taunting her, calling her “black face” and a the local term for “African,” which isn’t supposed to be derogatory but lots of things depend on tone.

I run out the door and find the little girl on the front porch alone. I bring her inside and ask for her take on the story. She is mostly silent, answering with shrugs, nods and shakes of the head with her lips pressed together.

“Is it okay to call you that?” I asked.

Shrug.

“Do kids at school call you that?” I know she goes to school in a mostly white area as well.

Nod.

“Do you like it when they do?”

Shake.

The girl is only eight and we’re on the leading edge of Eastern Europe. We don’t exactly get consciousness raising here, so I can’t assume much. I explain that it isn’t okay for people to call her things she doesn’t like or to make fun of how she looks. As I explain, she slowly relaxes. This is only the second time she’s been away from home over night with white people and she barely got out of the car when this happened.

Justice will wait a moment in favor of therapy. I spend a good long time reassuring her that this is not okay and I won’t let anyone say those things in my house, no matter what. I reassure her that she is beautiful—and she is objectively stunning for an eight-year-old as it so happens. She nods but looks unconvinced.

I do get confirmation that it was my son as well as his friend calling names and I try not to show that this not only deeply embarrasses me but fills me with rage. She doesn’t need my emotions. but my kids are adopted from a racially marginalized group here in Eastern Europe and they have been called “black face” themselves, although they are many shades lighter than the Nigerian girl.

That my son would participate in this… There are no words.

I give her my own apology and send both girls upstairs to play and go out to slay demons.

When I corner the boys outside, they are initially unrepentant—silly, stumbling and giggling. This almost, but not quite, breaks my cool. I want nothing more than to rip them to shreds.

I ask for their side of the story. They attempt to say they were just playing, just kidding, but admit to using the words. The visiting boy admits fairly easily. He isn’t entirely sure these are bad words. My son knows better and it takes longer to get the truth out of him.

I need to cool off to keep from doing something illegal, so I put my son behind one door and the other boy alone on the porch for a time-out. After awhile, my son is more open to talking and he tells all.

The other little boy is frightened and crying. I know that his father just left definitively a couple of weeks ago and that his mother cleans houses. I note with quiet irony that the Nigerian girl’s mother cleans for a living too.

When children do really bad or dangerous things, things parents want to stop in their tracks, there is a conundrum. It isn’t garden-variety naughtiness and with rambunctious kids like mine, they have already seen every acceptable disciplinary strategy in more than a dozen parenting books. Giving them regular discipline (time-out, apologize, revoke video game privileges) seems woefully inadequate and I want to make this eminently memorable.

I talk to my son alone, keeping my fury in check.

“Why did you call her that?”

“It was funny.”

“Has anyone ever called you that?”

Negative head shake.

“Well, actually I happen to know that they did when you were in kindergarten. Lots. It was a big problem. That one teacher…”

Shrug.

I had to bite my tongue. Unlike the kids and some parents, the teacher had not called him “black” or “gypsy” but she had said “those people have trouble in school” and “it’s about the genes, you know.” In the spring she had insisted that he had a contagious skin disease and would be banned from kindergarten for the several weeks it would take to be completely screened by dermatologists. Fortunately, the pediatrician stood up to her. It was ant bites. But all Marik knew was that he had to go to the doctor and the teacher was upset and the doctor said it was silly. As a mother you protect six-year-olds from some of the world’s worst truths, but kids and parents had said those things to him.

“Do you like it when people call you something like that?” I pressed.

Head shake.

Sigh. “Do you think you can give her a really really good apology?”

Nod.

I am far from satisfied, but I go out to talk to the other boy. He’s wiping his tears on his sleeve. This is even harder, though less personally humiliating, since he isn’t my son.

“Have you ever seen an African person before?” We essentially don’t have any local people of African origin here, so this is more or less how I phrase it.

“No.”

Much as I thought. “Why did you call her those words and laugh at her?”

Shrug. “I don’t know.”

“Have you heard other people use those words about African people or other people with brown skin?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand that you heard older kids and grownups use those words. That still doesn’t mean they are okay. It is not okay to call people names and I will never allow those kinds of words at my house. Even outside my house, if you use them, you won’t be welcome at my house. Do you understand me?”

Slight nod.

“Do you think you can say you’re sorry in a really nice way?”

“She’s black. It’s true.”

I’m momentarily at a loss for words. He’s only seven. I didn’t expect much resistance, though I didn’t have any great hopes of making a lasting impression on him either.

I again have to leave in order to avoid coming down like a ton of bricks on someone else’s kid.

I leave the boys in separate confinement for awhile yet. Then I bring them both out to the porch. I tell them that they need to apologize extremely well or my son’s friend will have to go home immediately. I know his single mother is looking forward to a day of rest with him here, but that’s just tough. He will go home if he is recalcitrant on this one.

Before I’m finished the two have started giggling again but I reiterate the consequences and they start to get serious, when they realize I mean it. I have my phone out, ready to make the call.

They start crying and we discuss more. My son’s friend unexpectedly states that kids at school do call my son those names. My son argues that it is mostly only one kid. Obviously he wasn’t telling the full truth before. I discuss with them the ridiculous nature of calling someone with slightly tan skin “black” and point out that the Nigerian girl is also not technically black in color, but more like dark brown. I reiterate that these differences don’t matter and it it is not okay to laugh at someone’s appearance anyway.

Slowly they both appear a bit more genuinely contrite. Finally, I leave them to plan their profuse apology and go upstairs to see the girls again.

I ask the Nigerian girl if she would come down, when she isn’t busy. Overly polite child that she is, she jumps up immediately to go downstairs. I ask her if she would be willing to listen to the boys’ apology. She agrees.

We join the boys outside, and I reiterate for everyone that it isn’t okay to call people names or laugh at anyone’s appearance or background. The boys actually do a pretty good job of apologizing and I almost ask, “Do you forgive them?” But I bite my tongue again.

She’s standing there with her head high, looking down on them from the top step of the porch, while they stand on the grass in the deepening dusk. I think on the fact that white people have probably never apologized to her for racism before. It will be a rarity in her future as well, if she ever gets another such apology, and the racism isn’t going to stop.

The handling of this moment is as crucial as any other step I’ve taken in resolving this deceptively childish conflict.

“You don’t have to forgive them,” I tell her. “They can handle it themselves. But you can forgive them if it makes you feel any better.”

She takes a moment more to look down on them and then says with the most impeccable manners I could wish my kids had, “I forgive you. Thank you for your apology.”

Then she turns and goes back to playing upstairs.

I let the boys come in the house and mostly things continue well, except that I discover that it is the Nigerian girl’s birthday. They don’t do birthday parties in her family, so no one mentioned it when we invited her. I decide this is a perfect opportunity to make the rest of the day all about her.

The boys have to work off a bit of their naughtiness by cleaning the floor. I whip together the world’s fastest chocolate cake and make the boys wrap a gift. The birthday girl is wide-eyed and stunned when she comes downstairs again to our impromptu decorations and party. She says she’s seen birthday parties on TV and she does everything just like in the movies, closing her eyes and putting on a dramatic show of making a wish and blowing out the candles.

In the middle of eating the cake, the seven-year-old who had never seen a black person up close before blurts, “At least you don’t have to worry about getting chocolate on your face, since…”:

I growl his name and fix him with a death-glare across the table. He gulps and wisely shuts up.

She doesn’t appear to notice.

By the time I tuck all four kids into bed, I am aching and exhausted. I feel like I have been literally fighting a war. I don’t know if I’ve won anything this day and I am sure that tomorrow and every single day we’ll still be fighting it.

How does this relate to the case of Jemel Roberson exactly? Well, it isn’t just that case of course. But I would say to all the black people who hurt inside or out because of this lethal and crushing racism we are living with, “Thank you for your calm and your manners and your endless attempts to live in peace with us. You do not have to forgive white people, even when we apologize. We can live with not being forgiven. What we need is to learn and remember and do better in the future.”

Exclusion: The abled-privilege knapsack

Shutting down "the privilege Olympics"  should not be code for "screw the disabled"

You too are wearing an invisible knapsack. 

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh explained white privilege in terms of an invisible knapsack filled with unearned benefits and assets that white people carry with them almost entirely regardless of class, economic status, citizenship or other conditions.

It's a good analogy. I am now much more aware of my knapsack of white privilege and I can observe the effects of its contents on a daily basis. 

I have never seen a similar analogy used to describe abled privilege, but it is time someone did. In the last few years the necessity of acknowledging abled privilege has been shoved in my face ever more frequently. Even in social justice circles where such things are typically read, people with disabilities are continually being marginalized and silenced.

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

It is worth noting from the beginning that people carrying the white-privilege knapsack but not the abled-privilege knapsack or visa versa might well enjoy some of the benefits of the one they do hold, but there are assets in both of these knapsacks that are very difficult to enjoy if you don't have the corresponding assets in the other knapsack.

So, as a white woman brought up to be aware of white privilege, I can pick out instances of white privilege that I enjoy. These are not so much unearned privileges as they are privileges earned by every human but accorded only to those who are white--the privilege of driving or walking without a well-founded fear of being accosted by law enforcement for trivial or non-existant reasons or the privilege of relaxing into a social situation in which my race and culture is in the majority most of the time.

Having children who are not white has taught me even more about my own privilege and a few privileges I gave up by being part of a racially mixed family, such as losing the ability to shelter my children from the societal realities of racism and the very real dangers they face because of it. 

However, there are some assets in the white knapsack that I have pulled out broken or severely dented because of my disability. Unlike most white people, I am beset daily by the assumptions and prejudices of others, both unconscious and conscious. I rarely to through a day without being yelled at in public and someone pushes my "difference" in my face at every turn. 

I was once told explicitly that I was denied a job that I was qualified for because of my disability and I have wondered about the reasons behind many other rejections. I have faced social isolation, rejecting neighbors and hostile school teachers as well as accusations of stealing in stores.

I do not claim that it is the same as what people of color face. In fact, I know it is not the same. But people of color who are not disabled do also enjoy privileges that I cannot.

Please note that this inventory has very little to do with the actual health problems people with disabilities may have. It has everything to do with society’s reaction to and ultimate rejection of us. The benefits of privilege represent the minimum of respect earned by every human being from birth and this is true of abled privilege as well. It is our right to be treated with respect and dignity, to have opportunities and to be judged by our actions rather than by attributes we cannot choose.

So, here is an inventory of the abled-privilege knapsack with some prompts drawn from McIntosh's essay and the writings of Emestine Hayes.

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

If you are temporarily abled, you are wearing an invisible knapsack and in it you will find:

  • You can, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people who view your physical body and neurological setup as normal and acceptable pretty much all the time.

  • You can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper or open a random Google search and see people of your shape or appearance widely represented.

  • You can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people that look vaguely like you.

  • Your body shape is reflected in media, movies, books, magazines, online and in most people's imagination as good and capable, even if sometimes not perfect. As a result, while you may have insecurities or anxieties about your looks, they are not a barrier to social interaction.

  • Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people of your general appearance and body shape. 

  • You can be fairly sure of having your voice heard in a group, even if most of the group has different abilities, body shape and speech from yours.

  • Authority most often rests in people who look like, speak like and perceive the world like you.

  • You do not need to make an in-depth study of the social habits and customary communication methods of your immediate neighbors in order to avoid daily conflicts of misunderstanding and unintended offense. 

  • You can criticize the government and talk about how difficult it is to access basic services without being seen as a moocher, a whiner, ungrateful or a burden. 

  • You can go home from most meetings of organizations you belong to and social gatherings you attend feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, rejected, unwanted, unheard, barred at a distance, or dismissed.

  • You can attire yourself, if you choose, in a way that most people in your community seeing you and hearing you speak will assume that you are capable, responsible and trustworthy until proven otherwise. If you happen to belong to a group where this is not always true, a community of people who do look and sound like you and where you would be respected and trusted does exist somewhere in the world. Even if you don't live there, the knowledge that such a community exists bolsters your courage and self-confidence and in most cases you could move to such a community if outside pressure became too intense.

  • People make eye-contact with you and you are able to make eye contact with them. People make small-talk with you and you are able to make small talk with them. This initial social contact often leads to social connections, builds bridges and defuses potential conflicts. 

  • While you may have been teased at school, your chances of suffering from extreme bullying or complete social isolation in childhood are dramatically reduced. Your chances of suffering from PTSD and other acquired barriers to communication with others are significantly reduced.

  • Teachers at schools and universities almost always look like, speak like and perceive the world like you do.

  • The vast majority of students and teachers all through the education system sense the world, communicate and access textual materials in the same way that you do.

  • The entire education system is custom made and designed with scientific precision to benefit your type of brain and calibrated to meet the needs of your particular senses.

  • The language and writing system of your culture was designed by and for people who communicate and perceive language in the same ways that you do.

  • Public buildings, including schools, were built using models of your body, to make them comfortable and easily accessible to you.

  • You have probably not been called a burden. You were not called a burden to your school while you pursued your education.

  • If you are denied employment for which you are qualified, you can be pretty sure it isn't because of an attribute you did not choose and which does not affect your job performance.

  • If you are given an award, you can be pretty sure it is something you deserved rather than a publicity stunt by the patron of the award. 

  • You can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that you got it because of disability hiring incentives.

  • If your day, week, or year is going badly, you need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it is disability related.

  • You can choose public accommodations without fearing that you cannot enter or will be treated with disrespect in the places you have chosen.

  • When you plan social engagements, your way of getting to and into the venue is the same as that of most of your friends and you don't need to strategize, beg for assistance from friends or go to extreme expense to get to or enter the social venues your peers take for granted. 

  • You can always ensure that your living, schooling, work and or social environment will be among people you can communicate with and among which you will be considered "normal" if you desire.

  • You can always find a living, schooling, work or social venue that you can physically access and fully participate in locally if you desire. 

  • If you should need to move, you can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing which you can afford and which you can personally enter and use fully and from which you can get to schools and places of employment.

  • You can be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will view you as a full adult, if you are over 18 years old. .

  • You can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that you will be able to access merchandise and that a reasonable portion of it will fit you and be usable by you.

  • Whether you use checks, credit cards or cash, you can count on not being infantilized, shamed or dismissed by cashiers and other people you interact with in public..

  • You can arrange to protect yourself from harm most of the time.

  • You are twenty percent more likely to finish high school than a person with a disability who has similar intelligence. You are twice as likely to finish college.

  • You are at least three times as likely to have any sort of job than a person with a disability and much more likely to have a job that is of some interest to you, that provides some social prestige, that pays your bills and in which you can progress for a career.

  • You are half as likely to be hungry as a disabled person. 

  • You are a third as likely to be a victim of sexual assault and half as likely to be a victim of violent crime as a person with a disability from a similar social or economic group and geographical area. You are half as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

  • You are twice as likely to have family and friends nearby or who you can contact in an emergency. You are likely to have a circle of friends to enjoy leisure time with and to network with for mutual benefit.

  • You are twice as likely to have a long-term relationship. You are many times more likely to have children.

  • You can swear or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people automatically assume these choices indicate low intelligence, shaky mental state or poverty.

  • You can be temporarily out of work or sick without being called a burden or assumed to be unemployable.

  • You can do well in a challenging situation without being called "an inspiration" or used to further the religious or social agendas of others without your consent.

  • With education and credentials, you could become an an acknowledged expert on people who look, speak and perceive the world differently from you and you would not be asked why you did not choose to study your own group.

I am sure I have missed some. It's a large knapsack after all. 

This is one of those posts that will inevitably draw flack. It isn't that I don't care. I have simply decided that the amount of verbal shrapnel I'm getting in "progressive" circles these days for being an uppity person with a disability has reached a point where the potential flack from this post won't be a significant change. 

So let me lay it out there. I am sick of the dismissal of people with disabilities in activist circles. I am sick of being told, "you are white so you need to practice being silent for a while," when I have been silenced, dismissed and sidelined my entire life.

I am sick to exhaustion of being excluded, rejected and sidelined in supposedly progressive groups because I didn't take an insult or bullying in silence and answered back withotu profanity, without insults but nonetheless with unpalatable truth. . 

I get what people of color, indigenous people, speakers of languages other than English and people living in absolute poverty are talking about when it comes to wanting those with privilege to stop yammering about their perspective on society, their perspective on history, their perspective on underrepresented people and their perspective on social justice long enough to listen to the perspectives of those less heard.

I get it because while I have the privileges in the white-privilege knapsack, the English-speaker's knapsack and the resources-beyond-bare-survival knapsack, these are usually not enough to be heard without abled privilege. 

This is not "the Privilege Olympics." It is not a matter of whose usurped privilege is worse. It is almost always so different that it cannot be compared. Still mentioning "the Privilege Olympics" or equivalent is routinely used to dismiss and marginalize people with disabilities in activist circles.

We have huge, life-threatening threats to people of color. The crises for people of color are so extreme in some places that there can be no other priorities or even distractions.

Many of us, myself included, have agreed to this, stepped back and ceded precedence because while there are life-threatening and devastating issues for people with disabilities as well, the numbers seem to indicate that our problems are at least statistically less severe. We activists with disabilities have often felt that we can wait a little while and trust that our progressive activist communities would do their best to include us in the meantime. 

But that trust has been misplaced. 

Not once but again and again. Not only do people with disabilities encounter a lot of social exclusion, bullying and discrimination in society at large, we encounter much the same atmosphere inside social justice organizations and groups claiming to be against bigotry and hate. 

My experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken with are clear. People with disabilities are welcome in these groups primarily as mascots or symbols. We are not respected for in our fields of expertise and study. We are often silenced and rarely given a voice. 

I've been told that my voice and experience are not welcome in progressive and social justice groups on multiple occasions. Usually this was not specifically because of my disability but rather because of my race. I was told that as a white person I am privileged and my role is not to speak. As a blind person, however, given that no other people with disabilities were present or given a voice, I felt that our voice was needed. 

I have been rejected quickly from several groups when my politely phrased protestations against being silenced were regarded as going against group authority. I never used profanity or insults against others in my responses. I did not talk over others but only refused to be entirely silent.

For that reason, this inventory of the abled-privilege backpack is necessary. I welcome any additions that others may find while rummaging through it. 

Reality check: There but for a last-minute cancellation go I

Last week twenty-six-year-old Reality Winner was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking a classified document to the press.

The document in question--the nature of which was tellingly left out of the official criminal case against her and out of most media coverage--was a report on an NSA investigation into specific actions of the Russian government aimed at influencing the 2016 election in the United States.

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat here. Russia and the United States have been meddling in each other's elections for half a century--at the very least. This is not earth-shattering news to people in intelligence and media circles. 

Reality Winner.jpg

The thing about this particular document is that the report was warranted, but it was being suppressed. Essentially, you have a report saying that the Russians hacked into voting systems to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump, who then won and has since fired or threatened to fire multiple persons involved in investigations of the meddling. 

So, this young woman is going to prison for leaking a report that was being suppressed for clearly corrupt and unethical reasons. It was a timely and necessary warning of danger to the nation. 

People look at the baby-faced pictures of this pretty young woman and some say she's a traitor who broke the necessary code of secrecy she swore to. Others see a hero who put her life on the line to protect her country and is now willing to pay the price, even if it is unjust. 

I just see a young woman who could so easily have been me. And my stomach seizes up. 

May 1998

The phone on my dorm-room desk rang. When I answered a man's voice was on the line. He gave a name but it went right out of my head when he said the next words "from the CIA."

A thrill of adrenaline shot through me and intensified as he continued to speak. Yes, it was that CIA and he specifically wanted to talk to me, a senior in linguistics at a small university in the Midwest known for only one thing of note--having been a quiet training ground for intelligence operatives during the Cold War. 

I'd heard the stories from our old professor, a former CIA agent himself. The students in our tiny Old Church Slavonic classes loved it when he tossed the xeroxed grammar pages, lit a cigarette and proclaimed that today he'd tell stories about adventures in the old Soviet Union instead. 

But that was all in fun. This was the late 90's, and no one knew that the Cold War was over better than we did. 

And yet, the CIA was calling me. 

Creative Commons image by Jamie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Jamie of Flickr.com

I wasn't fooled the year before when our professors told us we would now be studying Arabic in the Slavic linguistics department and it would be marked down vaguely as "a Slavic language" on our transcripts.

I snickered with my fellow students. Oh, how secret it all was. 

None of us was planning to work for intelligence or national security agencies as far as I knew. Least of all me. 

I was politically progressive, a scholarship kid from the backwoods of Eastern Oregon. I planned to go into journalism, travel Eastern Europe and write gritty magazine stories about social justice and war. I didn't care that such jobs don't pay. I was in it for the adventure.

And a discussion with a CIA recruiter was just that to my twenty-two-year-old self--an adventure. 

So, I'll admit that I led him on a little. He wanted to meet me at a Chicago job fair I had signed up for because Reuters was scheduled to be there. Thinking it might be an interesting experience, I agreed to stop by the CIA booth--though it was hilarious news to me that they had such a thing. 

The next day the DIA called. 

The Defense Intelligence Agency is a less famous cousin of the CIA. Most lay people don't realize it but there are more than a dozen US intelligence agencies. 

A few days after that Reuters cancelled. 

The trip to Chicago for the job fair would cost me about $70 and as I mentioned I was a scholarship kid. Before I came to that university four years earlier I hadn't even held that much money in my hand at one time. So, fun as it might have been, without a real reason to go, I cancelled too.

And the CIA--and the DIA--called again... and again. By this time the adrenaline was no longer fun. There was some gentle recruiting pressure. They each offered to pay for my trip. I'd heard of people being trapped by recruiters back home, where several of my peers had taken the military route out of poverty. 

My tune changed abruptly and I told them simply and in no uncertain terms that I wasn't interested and that I was going into journalism.

In one last-ditch effort the CIA recruiter said, "We have plenty of journalists working for us."

My hand was shaking. Yes, I knew they did even then.

And I would come to bitterly resent that fact when I did become an international journalist. Once I was kicked off of a bus on a remote and freezing mountain road in South America because someone suspected I might be just such a CIA agent mascarading as a journalist and a reporter friend was killed in Afghanistan on similar suspicion. 

I didn't go to Chicago and while I did learn to get along quite well with some intelligence people as sources once i was an reporter with a wide variety of contacts, I never went down that road.

2018

But Reality Winner did. She too was a thinker and a linguistics student. I can't know her reasons but her published comments lead me to believe that national security work wasn't always her plan. In media interviews her family sounds hauntingly like mine. 

Even her name, which may sound odd to many people, reminds me of my roots. My middle name is Meadowlark. One brother is Forest and the other is Skye. We had that kind of parents too. 

And I know one thing without a doubt. If I had taken that road and if I had come across such clearly damning evidence of corruption and crime threatening the very bedrock of our democracy, I certainly hope I would have done something about it. 

It could so easily have been me in those fetters and it could easily have been my mother holding back tears on the news.