Springfield It’s wild and wooly out there on the trail these days. I gave the annual Social Science lecture about my book, Citizen Wealth, and its themes at Springfield College last night to 200+ students, faculty, and members of the community in Marsh Hall on the campus. All of this capped a marathon of four (4) classes I had done for various professors over the course of the few hours in the city. The remarks were well received, the questions robust and varied – more on this – and generally it was a solid performance by all involved. Somehow that tells almost none of the story of the excitement of event, I fear.
Some group prior to my visit to Springfield had posted on a listserv connected to the Tea Party people that they wanted to recruit protestors for my talk in Springfield and Amherst. The notice was forwarded and it made the case that they needed to be well dressed and restrained so that they could communicate with students and keep them from being brainwashed by whatever points I might make. No matter, I thought. Before the speech I went a couple of miles away and met with Caroline Murray, the director of ADP – the Alliance to Develop Power – in her offices so that I could check-in on the progress of community organizing in Springfield and adjoining counties. Upon returning to campus I was handed emails that outlined their “security” plans and their media plans. It seemed that Fox was going to cover the speech and the “protest” planned by what they called 9/12 or Glenn Beck people. Huh?
Seems 9/12 refers to 9 principles and 12 values articulated by Glenn Beck and some kind of organization has developed to embrace and promote these things. Who knew? Welcome to America, 2009!
Walking over to Marsh Hall there was a buzz of excitement as we hit the door to turn on the lights. Seems that they had already moved a bunch of protestors off the campus and over to the public street running through Springfield College. By the count of one of the professors (Rick Parr thanks and the pictures were taken by him as well), there were about 30 anti-Wade demonstrators and 6 or so pro-Wade demonstrators. Whoa!
The room filled up amazingly to almost the full 250 capacity. There were people from local community organizations: ARISE, Springfield ACORN, and ADP. There were 9/12ers sitting in the front row in motorcycle vests as well as some others sprinkled about the hall. There were students galore and a number of older faculty and retired types.
I was introduced and as I walked to the lectern, the first of the Beckers jumped up from his seat to protest my speaking and rant about ACORN and its evil and prostitution and whatnot. Department chair, Herb Zette, walked up to him and ushered him out. Meanwhile Caroline Murray had jumped up and shouted for the guy to get down. The ACORN people started yelling. Then a second person jumped up from another part of the room, and Dr. Zettl was on him like white on rice. By this point people on that side of the room were chanting, “The People United, Shall Never be Defeated!” Bedlam! By the 3rd person I was bored with the 9/12 tactics and the strategy of containment, and simply held the mike and said I would be glad to take the guy’s question in the Q&A period, so hold your horses. We were definitely giving the crowd all of the excitement for a Monday night that they could conceivably handle!
The questions on all sides were interesting.
My friend who had delayed his rage spoke eloquently as a working man worried about his two teenagers and their ability to find jobs and whether or not President Obama and people like me were changing the country. But, there was a way to respond about jobs and what we were doing.
One of the final questions by the 9/12 folks was from a woman in the front row who was accompanied by her daughter. She spoke in a low voice movingly about having been on welfare when she was divorced and how difficult it was. She talked about having worked her way off of the aid, and thanked the government for the help, but then she also though she was the exception, and that there were lots of people coming on welfare and staying forever. I listened to her carefully. This was a woman conflicted. She didn’t like welfare of course, but knew it was there when she needed it, but saw her circumstances as deserving and exceptional, rather than typical and mundane. She didn’t want to believe the fact that the welfare rolls had steadily been reduced under TANF until the current economic crises. She was no hater. She was a woman that I had signed up as an ACORN member in a hundred neighborhoods…she reminded me of the great Elena Hanggi around her kitchen table in Little Rock or Barbara Rivera in the North End of Springfield, whose story I told last at Springfield as well.
There is anger, but mainly there is a lost, hurt sense of alienation and estrangement. I was listening and learning, and perhaps others were as well. These exchanges are at the heart of the current American dialogue
Many were groping to understand. One man wanted desperately to blame the Community Reinvestment Act for the housing problems and didn’t want to believe that the default rate had ever been lower on such loan portfolios. Another professor asked out loud why the anger was so misdirected and how in the world Wall Street was escaping the wrath and change was not coming. A former leader from Springfield ACORN tried to understand how the hard work they had done and their victories, big and small, in the neighborhoods were being demonized and shunned in these current times, and what would happen now.
I posed the hard question: like ACORN or not, what will fill the gap and take its place as a voice for low and moderate income people? Who will register those voters? Who will provide those services? Who will speak their truths to power? There were of course no answers, but the questions weighed heavy on the crowd.
Sometimes it’s the little things. For Professor Dan Russell, the organizer of the event, a student came up to him and said that this was the best thing that had happened to him in four years at Springfield College. For me it was a man who came at me on a beeline after my speech and without giving me his name, extended his hand in a firm handshake and said, “you converted me.” He said that he had come in convinced one way, but he had moved the other. I said I was moved by that, but what had made the difference. His answer: “the passion of your conviction.”
We all learned a lot at Springfield College last night.