Tag Archives: social justice

National Service as a Tool for Racial and Social Justice

New Orleans   Talking to Max Klau, the chief program office for the New Politics Leadership Academy, about his new book, Race and Social Change:  A Quest, A Study, A Call to Action on Wade’s World, I was struck that I was learning about veteran and contemporary programs that, frankly, I just had never heard about before.  Mine was a smaller epiphany than Klau describes in his book, when as a younger psychology researcher he witnessed “separation game” at a Camp Anytown session that changed the trajectory of his life and study, and eventually focused his lifetime work.

Maybe you’re in the same boat where I was floating, so let me explain a bit.  Camp Anytown is a youth leadership training experience that has been run for more than sixty years around the country by various branches of the National Conference for Community and Justice, a nonprofit formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews.  The programs, much like the conference itself, is focused on the inarguable core belief that if we know each other better and share time and experience, we are less likely to live with prejudice and bias.  Camp Anyone picks diverse teens and, depending on the locality, runs the camp for three, six or a similar number of days.

One of the more dynamic and perhaps controversial parts of the camps is playing the “separation game” towards the end of the experience.  The separation game, as described by Klau, begins by dividing the youngsters up by race and ethnicity.  The whites eat first with unlimited seconds, and on down the line in the dining halls until the African-Americans end up eating almost nothing and having to sit on the floor.  Over several exercises along these lines like whites watching videos while blacks do cleanup, young people then come together to discuss how race and ethnicity create divisions and discriminatory obstacles.  You get the basic idea.  Some embrace the experience as a microcosm of our society, while some others see it as manipulative.

Klau’s epiphany convinced him that the more opposites are combined, the more they will attract rather than repel, contributing mightily to the strength of our society and democracy.  He also details how this personal insight was cemented by a decade working with City Year, a program begun in Boston and now part of AmeriCorps, part of the US federal voluntary experiential service opportunity offering that includes armed service, VISTA, the Peace Corps, and similar options.  City Year places teams of young folks into city schools to assist in learning experiences.

All of which has led Klau to advocate that a cure for our current national divisions would be a mandatory year of national service.  Though tainted by the mandatory military draft ended after the Vietnam War, this is not a new idea.  Certainly, it was advocated by former President Bill Clinton, and Klau says several of the latest crop of Democratic primary aspirants have said they support some version of this as well.

It’s hard to argue that a shared and unifying national experience wouldn’t be good for Americans now.  It’s equally hard to handicap the odds for a mandatory year of national service becoming reality.  National service may be like some of the programs and organizations like these that have hunkered down to do their part, unheralded, and little known, but able to continue to implement and promote ideas that also won’t die.


The Contradictory Worlds of Political Struggle in Morocco

inside the grand mosque in Casablanca

Montreal   The magic of the Organizers’ Forum is that we immerse ourselves in the work of counterparts in diverse areas of change making, along with as much of the local culture as we can absorb. The risk and constant caution is not deceiving ourselves that this deep dive ends on solid ground once on shore. We seize on clear visions, even while recognizing that they may only a mirage. Where we think we see democracy, may only be a face mask for a subtle repression. Where we embrace the energy and passion of individuals, we have to be careful to examine where everything is going and whether it is sustainable, whether it will actually work.

We always want to be positive and supportive, but we recognize that we are visitors. We are not tourists. We want to be seen as comrades in struggle, looking to learn, but we recognize that as North Americans and Europeans, we are seen as privileged and often opportunistically, no matter how humbly we try to represent ourselves. Finally, we are organizers, bred and trained to question, to be skeptical, to analyze and doubt, to test words against action, presentations against reality, all integrated into our every thought. In that spirit, a first-time participant turned to me after a long and exciting presentation from a labor organization, and asked me if I thought it was a “real union” or not. That’s just how we are.

working cart

All of which led me to reflect on some of the contradictions that emerged from all of our meetings that, if accurate, concern me. Among the people we met there seem to be divisions, perhaps irreconcilable, between the forces for change. On our first afternoon I was surprised to hear a journalist and activist from the 20th of February movement express an opinion indicating that most nonprofits and unions were essentially tools of the state. One activist pointing out the problems of minorities laid the blame on the King, but was also clear later that he did not want his photo used, and that he was leaving the country to make money in hopes of making change later. Other activists, including our favorite firebrand, Betty Lachgar with M.A.L.I., the Movement for Alternative Individual Liberties, resisted becoming nonprofits in the same way because of the requirements of the state. The issue was the usual requirement that in registering with the government, the organization was required to express some allegiance to the state, and in Morocco that also means the King and Islam, the state religion. Is that so different from the requirements that many US and Canadian organizations accept in order to get tax exemptions by pledging not to be political? Yes and no, but it’s only a difference in degree.

clock tower in Casablanca near old medina

On the other hand we met with cultural organizers with vibrant programs in art and theater and deep community roots and political programs, who had registered and received most of their support from foreign and EU sources, and were enthusiastically embraced by some of the same activists that scoffed at unions and organizational registration. Women’s organizations were also extremely politically active and essential in changing the family code and winning protections for women, but also registered and supported by the younger activists.

It seems the contradiction was more between activists and organizers. The organizers accepted the compromise of state registration in order to build more stable structures to sustain and fight for change. The activists were more committed to movements, solidarity, direct action, cultural events, education in the public space, mobilizing rather than organizing, social media rather than institution building. For the younger activists, their commitment was deep, but it was not their work in the same way it was the full-time commitment of the unionists or even the cultural and community center nonprofits, who also saw it as their life job. I’m not sure either realized the trade-off or the consequences.

In Morocco, they clearly knew each other and in many cases got along well and with respect, but would they have the ability to come together and find that they had built the capacity to make change when the opportunity presented or not? That question would stay with me a long time and leave me waiting to watch and see.

stop sign