New York City Speaking at the Williams Club was not on the top list of things I simply had to do before breathing dirt, but I counted on it being an interesting educational experience, so I wasn’t disappointed. It seems all of the college-based clubs that are based in NYC for the Ivy League and similar schools share mailing lists and invite speakers in as one of the benefits of membership.
This was not the standard Citizen Wealth talk, because there was a specialized interest in my two hitches at Williams before winning long term parole as an organizer a million years ago. So, I got to tell the story of dropping out to organize welfare rights in Springfield, Massachusetts at 20 and then ACORN at 21. It was a polite crowd and very mannered and attentive.
In the same way that my friends in the Tea Party and the 912 project have been helpful in giving me a window to peep through to understand the alienation and anger among conservations, some of the inquiries in the Q&A period reminded me how dim the view is from the upper stories as well. Talking about the way that voter registration works, a scrimmage broke with the crowd going back and forth at each other about their different understandings – and expectations – of how hard they felt it should be for a lower income citizen to be able to vote. One woman told of going to City Hall in New York to register, and it became pretty clear that she really wanted everyone to share that same experience come hell or high water. When I asked if she realized that the burden was different if someone had to lose pay and risk getting fired in order to register and that posed an obstacle, she clearly did not get it and had no appreciation of the problem. Voting for her was a privilege, not a right. Some others snapped back with different views. Others offered her safe haven.
Paul Lieberman, who had extended the invitation for me to speak, tried to bring it back to his feeling that there was a real “natural suspicion” of any and all efforts to register voters as being somehow illegitimate and problematic, but it was really clear he already had his answer. In a rare experience for me I was the peacemaker by simply saying that we needed to agree that there was a gulf of understanding about the lives of low and moderate income people that we seemed not to be able to get every one across. That worked, but it created a sad cloud over the rest of the session, which was hard not to remember.
The questions were interesting about international organizing reflected a wider ranging attention and diversity. A young woman wrestled with the question of whether or not organizing made sense in the face of oppression and risks in authoritarian countries. My answer that there were few choices but to organize inside countries to try to move people to protect themselves and win governmental accountability, though one had to be mindful of the risks and not assume that the same tactics worked there as here, was obviously not totally satisfying for her, but I left still believing she was more uncomfortable agreeing to legitimizing oppressive governments and understanding that we are called to organize, because there simply is no choice.
I walked into the night air with vivid memories of some of the old exhilaration of some of my brief college debates with other students with different lives and backgrounds as well as the huge frustration with willful decisions made by some to simply not understand that any life was different than their own or to learn the least empathy for others. All of that forced me to have to either act or go mad decades ago, and some of these questions and failed efforts to span the gulf of communications reminded me how ill suited I was to Williams then, and probably still.