Category Archives: Collective Impact

Democracy is dying. Time to get to work.

I came across an article by George Monbiot (www.monbiot.com) that appeared in the Guardian this July. In this article, Monbiot writes about James McGill Buchanan, an economist influenced by neoliberalism and deeply funded by billionaire Charles Koch, the 7th wealthiest person in the world.

According to Monbiot, Buchanan was an advocate for what he called the public choice theory. The general gist is that “society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes are forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.

“Any clash between what he called ‘freedom’ (allowing the rich to do as they wished) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that “despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” Despotism in defence of freedom.

His prescription was what he called a “constitutional revolution: creating irrevocable restraints to limit democratic choice. Sponsored throughout his working life by wealthy foundations, billionaires and corporations, he develop both a theoretical account of what this constitutional revolution would look like and a strategy for implementing it” (Source).

Buchanan’s influence extends beyond the United States. In 1980, he assisted the Pinochet dictatorship to write a new constitution. “Amid the torture and killings, he advised the government to extend its programmes of privatisation, austerity, monetary restraint, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions: a package that helped trigger economic collapse in 1982” (Source).

GIFSec.comNevertheless, believe it or not, in 1986 Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for economics. This was the man who was against desegregating schools in the American South. He advocated for the privatization of just about everything: universities (at which all students would be required to pay full tuition). He was a proponent of privatized health care which is so costly what is spent in the United States by governments to mitigate its impact on those who can’t pay exceeds the costs of universal health care in Canada. He also thought it would be a good idea to privatize Social Security. Ask yourself when privatization materially improved the lives of everyday people.
According to Monbiot, Buchanan set out to “demolish trust in public institutions. He aimed, in short, to save capitalism from democracy” (Source).

While you may not have heard of Buchanan, his economic theories and political ideology appear to have served as the backbone for how things work in America.
One has to wonder if his form of “radical capitalism” influenced the financial crisis in 2007, when millions lost their homes due to banking and loaning practices that were driven by greed by those with money in pursuit of more. Remarkably, despite legal activity up the yin-yang, those who caused the disaster were bailed out, made sure they got big bonuses, and no one went to jail. Those who lost their homes received no help to speak of.

the_rich_fewAs income inequality prospers in the United States (and to a lessor extent in Canada), we see the Trump administration making decisions that benefit the super wealthy and punish those struggling to survive. His new health care act will kill people, harm those who are just surviving, and create more profits for mega-health providers. He is a savvy businessman if nothing else. He knows that a single payer system would work better and cost less. By the way, despite their advertisements to the contrary, these health care corporations hire people who can earn bonuses by denying claims (based on an interview I did with a claims officer at one of the largest health providers in the US.).

It all comes down to money. Not humanity. Not any smidgen of moral obligation to the marginalized. No one would vote to give up more of what little they have in order to increase profits for the wealthy – well, at least not knowingly. Oddly enough the poorest of the poor tend to vote Republican. This has been true for year and years, and yet they are no better off for their loyalty to the party.

There is a distasteful mythology that has been nurtured by those who are not poor about those who are. The poor are lazy, defective. They don’t have a work ethic. They prefer to lay about and live off of others. Given the obsession that successful people often have about their own success as a model for others, it makes sense, twisted sense I grant you, that one who purports the bootstrap theory of success would in turn rile against the unsuccessful as deserving of their failures. Blaming the poor by defining them as lesser beings than those who have money is a major reason why poverty continues to exist.

rich-vs-poor

Monbiot concludes his article this way: “In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called ‘economic freedom’ and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both” (Source).

President Franklin Roosevelt once warned Congress: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”

Look at what is happening in the United States. Fascism is something we think is done over there, across the water, by despicable people. Now, it’s emerging at a rapid rate just south of our border. It’s frightening, isn’t it? A president who holds himself above the law, who threatens to fire people if they don’t toe the line, who utters outlandish diatribes at anyone who would hint at opposing him. He won’t be transparent about his taxes. He makes decisions that are rooted in his own passion for self-benefit. Although I have to doubt President Trump ever read a word of Buchanan’s, he appears to be an ardent advocate for the super-rich, while unable to hide his distaste for the poor.

capitalismquoteWe can see this thinking and the divisiveness it perpetuates elsewhere of course. Even here in Canada, where we see the emergence of a far right political party in Alberta. Its leader, Jason Kenney, a student of Ralph Klein, who believe some pretty scary stuff, such as (Source).

“We shouldn’t indoctrinate students into the most extreme view about [climate change], I don’t think we should be teaching in our schools that whatever David Suzuki says is gospel truth.”

“Carbon dioxide is no biggie because trees like CO2.”

“I think it’s the first generation [Millennials] to come through a schooling system where many of them have been hard-wired with collectivist ideas, with watching Michael Moore documentaries, with identity politics from their primary and secondary schools to universities. That’s kind of a cultural challenge for any conservative party, any party of the centre-right, and we’ve got to figure out how to break that nut.”

He is anti-choice, against gay marriage, does not support assisting the severely ill with ending their lives. And he believes that the supremacy of God trumps the authority of Parliament. I assume he means the right and true Christian God. All the others no doubt do not matter.

When Trump ran for president, I still had my head in the sand. I thought no way he will become president — and voila. I have urges to discount Kenney as a quack that no sane Albertan would vote for, but I know those urges are wrong. Acting like an ostrich will not protect ourselves from the dangers in the wild.

We are on a journey, have been for a long time, to a time when life is ruled by dark money by old, wealthy men in closed-door meetings.

I have often wondered if despicable people have a good side. Did Hitler open doors for elderly women? Did Pinochet ever say a kind word to a homeless person on the street? Did George Bush Sr. ever regret introducing HMOs into the US healthcare arena? Does Trump ever for a moment stop to truly think about how many people will die because of his ego and shabby, hurtful design of a new health care system?

I don’t really know the answer to such questions, though I have my suspicions. But I do know that it will take courageous political leaders to turn our journey into a better direction. I wonder who will do that, who will turn away from corporate donations that come with clear expectations, if not demands?

Who will rise up to claim democracy once again as the way we should and must live, where people are equal under the law, have human rights that are enforced, and where governments make decisions that benefit the majority, if not everyone.

If you think improving socio-economic conditions requires systems change, this is what we are facing: A Noble prize winner, funded by billionaires, who has set a course  for a place where the rights of the few trump the rights of the many. Ironic that the US president is named, “Trump.”

Who will lead a new journey? We know who won’t. But we can’t do it without leadership at all levels of government.

Thanks to Monbiot and others like him, we can see the twisted agenda of the super powerful and wealthy.

In the context of Collective Impact, which is a practice area for me, we do not just need to agree on what the problems are. We need to understand that the old maxim, “Know thy enemy” rings true here as well.

Time to get to work.

 

Further reading:

James M. Buchanan,The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy[1962]

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America By Nancy MacLean

Missing Link, George Monbiot

LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Note:  In addition to writing about community change and penning commentary, I am a story teller. I write fiction and spoken word. This piece is a mix of fact and fiction, often called “faction.”

One of my small luxuries in life is having someone come to my house weekly and clean it. I tell myself I need this service because I am so busy, but truth is it’s a luxury for me. I can afford it and to be honest I have the time to take care of my own mess; I just hate doing it.

Karen is the one who takes care of this for me. She is 24 and nearly always cheerful. She does an excellent job and in good time as well.  She is a friend of a friend and when I heard she was interested in providing this service, I decided to give her a go.

When I asked her what she charged, she asked if $15 per hour would be okay. I had two reactions to her question. One had to do with her proposal representing a great deal. If I were a business I might have equated her wage request as a way of minimizing the cost of her labour on my bottom line.

But I am not a business. I am just a guy who dislikes doing his own housework. My second reaction was the stronger of the two. I told her I would pay her $25 per hour. In my mind, anything less seemed, not enough. I was asking her to clean up after me, wash floors and tackle the mess of bathrooms.

Karen wasn’t yet 21 when she gave birth to her daughter, Millie. Neither she nor her boyfriend, the father, wanted to get married. In fact, I got the impression Karen was close to breaking things off when she found out she was pregnant. He was a decent enough guy, she told me, but they really didn’t click enough to see a future together.

Shortly after Millie was born, Karen applied for an apartment through the city’s Subsidized Housing Program, which bases rent on income. She wasn’t making much money and couldn’t afford a place on her own.  Despite having a high school education, she couldn’t find a decent paying full time job. So, she ended up working retail or at fast food places, none of which provided full-time hours, much less a living wage. And, to boot, none of the jobs she found offered benefits.

Please don’t slide over the obvious here. Let’s remind ourselves that businesses do this on purpose and with purpose. The structure their workforce to avoid providing benefits to their employees. One of these employees is Karen. She is smart enough to know what was really going on. She told me once, “I am just a commodity.”

Five words that offer a simple yet brilliant analysis of how the power of wealth and the addiction to wanting more has stripped away workers’ humanity. I wanted to tell her I was going to quote her in a story or a blog posting, but I checked myself. Continue reading LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Developing Collective Impact Strategies

This article contains tools and approaches designed to help with the development of Collective Impact strategies. This resource is meant to serve as a guide for you and your colleagues as well as to stir your thinking. Three approaches are addressed: Divergent and Convergent Thinking, Strategy Criteria, and a structured approach to Strategy Formulation.

Precarious Work

When an employer won’t allow a worker more than 25 hours a week but requires that worker to be available for work 7 days a week, people become little more than commodities on the open market of Precarious Employment.

Lately I have made an effort to talk with folks that work at places like Shopper’s Drug Mart, Home Depot, and Save-on Foods and none of the workers I have talked to get an eight hour shift. My partner’s son just landed a job at 30 hours per week, no benefits of any kind.

Efforts like the Living Wage movement are gaining traction but large corporations seem slower on the uptake than do small business owners. When will the incessant desire to keep wages low by major businesses end up hurting the economy on which these low wage employers depend? There is a tipping point somewhere down the road – for everyone.

The Living Wage movement is a welcome Pan-Canadian effort to ensure that people have a “livable” income. We also need to collectively address the commodification of human beings who are put to work without any consideration for what happens when a worker or her child is sick, for the need to have a day off to rest and revitalize, not to mention deal with life’s practicalities.

Imagine being fired for being sick and missing a couple of days of work. Imagine working for $12.00 per hour in unsafe conditions and suffering from a workplace injury that could have been avoided. Imagine no health and dental care, no vacation time, nada.

Imagine being a part-time worker and not being able to seek other part-time work because your employer wants access to your entire work week to schedule you.

For too many Canadian workers there is no need to imagine. This is their reality.

In Ontario, there is a movement to get the minimum wage to $15 per hour and to bring in legislation and regulations that would address the unsavory trend of precarious work. Led by Fight for 15 and Fairness, the good folks there launched A Better Way Alliance and features videos of business leaders who also believe in the importance of decent work. Click here watch the videos.

Take a look at some great employers who do care and who do value their employers. They tend to be small employers and I have to wonder if they can treat their employees like human beings that matter, why can’t large businesses?

better alliance

IF WE WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD

As some of you may know, I often open and close Tamarack gatherings with original music. Some years ago I wrote The Truth We Find in All that We Deny and since then have performed it numerous times around the country. You can listen to a version of it HERE. That simple song is about how often the truth is found in what we turn away from, found in what we step around or deny.

I was going to perform it again this year at Tamarack’s Poverty Reduction Summit in Hamilton, which took place April 4 to 6, but a few weeks before the gathering I told myself I should write a new song for the closing. Telling myself I should write a new song was easy. Actually writing one was a tad harder. In fact, by the weekend just prior to the Summit, I had yet to even attempt a new song.

In addition to being quite pre-occupied with getting everything done for the Summit, I had picked up a book I had read sometime ago by Adam Kahane called Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. Inspired by the work of Martin Luther King Jr., the gist of Kahane’s book is that love is not enough to change the world and the power on its own is a dangerous creature. The quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that I heard Kahane quote during a talk I was present for provides the thesis for the book:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

I had been mulling over that quote, thinking about how power and love can and should relate to the work I am doing with Vibrant Communities Canada. I was also thinking about Truth and Reconciliation and how the opportunities it provides will only stand a chance of coming to fruition if power and love are married together to produce the justice referred to by King. I wasn’t connecting all of this to a song by the way.

Because my mind meanders, in the midst of all of this, I recalled listening to a gentleman on a video somewhere talk about empathy — in particular how it is over-rated and often is an expression that accomplishes little or nothing. When someone clicks LIKE on a Face Book posting about a hungry child or about homeless people, that action is often the entirety of the person’s action on the matter. It’s like saying, “Oh, that’s a shame” or “I feel for him or her or you.” I am not saying people who express empathy this way are not genuine in their expression, but if empathy’s stature is limited to a simple click of the mouse or words that we leave behind as we move on to the next thing, what has such empathy accomplished? It becomes little more than a vicarious experience of feeling what someone else is feeling – or what we think that person is feeling and going through.

Empathy should mean more than that, shouldn’t it? Feeling the suffering of others and then moving on ends up having empathy being more self-serving, I think.

So on Saturday, three days before the Summit, I was sitting in my living room strumming on my dulcitar and playing around with a new melody. This is how I write music. I search for a melody and then I start humming or even mumbling words as I play. It’s kind of like free writing, which is a tool writers use to find a way through writer’s block.

While I could say my process has to do with creating lyrics for the melody, in reality I think the lyrics are already there, waiting for me to recognize them. It took about an hour for that to happen. The lyrics were rough, not yet complete enough for a song, but the foundation was there and on Sunday I returned to the sketch of a song that had found me and the song happened.

All of the thinking I had been doing about power and love, Truth and Reconciliation, and empathy had converged and then tapped me on the shoulder, as if to say, “Hey Mark, here you go. Here is your closing song.”

I don’t have a recording to share of this new song, but I do have the lyrics. Amazingly as I was singing this song before a couple of hundred people, the lyrics kept changing right there as I was performing.  For what it’s worth, here are the (current) final lyrics.

IF WE WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD

Do you ever think about tomorrow?
Ever wonder what is waiting over there?
Will there just be more suffering and sorrow
Or will love show up and really care?

We need to do more than empathize and then walk away
if we want to change the world.

How can we do what really matters?
How can we move through what’s in our way?
And when we discover we are the obstacle
Will we help one another change?

We need to do more than empathize  and then walk away
if we want to change the world.

Change requires love and power together.
Each one is not sufficient on their own
To carry truth and reconciliation
Into every heart and every home.

We need to do more than empathize  and then close the door
if we want to change the world.

Power without love is self-serving.
Love without power: It’s just a Hallmark card.
We need both of them to marry
So their child Justice can be born.

We need to do more than empathize
And then walk away.
We need to do more than empathize
And then close the door
If we want to change the world.

Do you ever think about tomorrow
And what we should be creating over there?
copyright 2017 Mark Holmgren