Snow, Favelas, and Malcolm X

ACORN International International

wharton_excel1Coer d’ Alene My son, Chaco, and I had pulled off the grid 21 miles east of Missoula at the signpost advertising the annual “Teste-Feste” every summer, an event we simply hustle by on the way up Rock Creek.  As we lost cell service and email access to our surprise we were greeted by snow.  And, then more snow, and more snow, coupled with cold, which sometimes turned to bitter cold, until Saturday morning peaked at 3 to 4 inches on the ground around the Silver Bullet, but with a “forgive and forget” sun which finally made for a beautiful afternoon so we could do our chores and repairs to prepare for the rumor of spring, wet a line, and cap a great couple of days.

We spent a lot of time thinking about snow, which is not something New Orleans guys usually do at the end of April, as the tourists flock into Jazz Fest in their short pants, Hawaiian shirts, floppy hats, and sandals.  Frankly, we liked the snow and what it did to the mountains.  We liked hearing the ping of the melt on the top of the Airstream and the cracking pine boughs and the thud of snow hitting the ground from 40 or 50 feet.  We just weren’t geared right.  A trip into town for wool socks, wool gloves, a better sleeping bag, and we were happier.  Two old Eagle Scouts like ourselves will be even better prepared next time.  Part of what made me think about now was having been solicited by a friend to be a founding member of something called Snowriders International (, which is trying to get 500 charter members and jump into action.  They had asked if my poison or pleasure was skiing, boarding, or whatever.  Luckily they said you could just like mountains and care about them enough to help them get rolling and so something to keep them in good stead for what they provide the planet and some folks pleasure, including for my money feeding the clear blue water of Rock Creek and the trout habitat all around me.  Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

In the cold and snow, we frankly found ourselves lucky to have good shelter.  The Silver Bullet may be pushing 35 years old but it keeps the elements out even if the heater was on the fritz.  The stove worked so we had coffee with chicory (of course!) on demand and food when we wanted it.   Darkness would not shut us down until 9PM, and we never were able to stay awake as late as 10 PM, but we weren’t complaining.  All of which also made me think a lot about one of the books I was reading as the light would ebb, Favelas by Janice Pearlman.  At Social Policy we are doing an excerpt of one of her chapters in a coming issue, but having known Janice’s work in the 70’s when she looked at US-based social movements, including ACORN, and now organizing in many of the mega-cities, where she concentrates, I was interested in her insights, and they were many!  I would recommend the book not only for what it says about shelter and the stigma of marginality that Djaccompanies living in favelas in Rio de Janeiro, but also the clarity which she has learned, similar to our ACORN International’s own experience in Dharavi, about the critical importance of livelihood, often trumping shelter itself.

When not finishing Favelas, I continued to work my way through Manning Marable’s Malcolm X:  The Reinvention. This one is more of a labor.  After watching whole families and their communities evolve over 40 years, frankly it’s harder to just focus on one man over a similar time span.  Maybe I’m simply obsessed by this theme of livelihood now, so I see it everywhere I look, but the notion of “reinvention” was less compelling that the Muslim’s early concept of being “lost/found.”  Malcolm , like so many talented people, was searching for something to be, as well as something to believe in.  Luckily for him he found both in the same place with such force that he was able to find a purpose he could invest with full passion and still secure a livelihood as well.  In the Brazilian expression Janice finds everywhere in the favelas, he was able to become gente as so many of the people she interviewed on the margins sought to become – a full person, someone worthy of respect.

As long as the poor and lower income are ostracized and not allowed full voice, the ability to act, or the security, respect, and honor that comes from a stable livelihood and living wage, the millions out of the billions that bump their heard on the cast iron ceilings of increasing inequality will be looking to hear anything that explains their situation and some will breakthrough and be the Malcolms of the future.

Off the grid, sheltered from the snow, the mind keeps racing ahead, just as it does for anyone trapped anywhere, and less lucky than we happened to be.