The Future

I’ve been reading and teaching Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, a difficult luminous book about the daughter of a Communist revolutionary hero in apartheid-era South Africa.  After her father dies while serving a life sentence, Rosa Burger is freed to explore what it really means to be Burger’s daughter. Will she inherit the extraordinary discipline and responsibility of Party life, a forgone conclusion for many of her friends, or will she pursue the more personal, intimate life of a more ordinary person? After seeking out both ways of living, in South Africa and abroad, Rosa returns to her homeland to take up the mantle of suffering because political suffering, well, that is the one kind of suffering she can do something about.  Her reasons are neither her father’s nor the Party’s. But as she sees her friends grow old, sick, suffer from the inevitable ravages of time, she understands that a meaningful life, for her, must be to being to put an end to the suffering she can do something about.

The book haunts me.

I have known people like Rosa and her father Lionel (inspired by the real life revolutionary South African Bram Fischer), people of extraordinary discipline and commitment.   People for whom the public life and the commitment to end suffering has been the major work of their life.   And I look at the small circle of my family, and the small ways that we contribute to our children’s education about the world and our small donations and community service and think it is not nearly enough.  Rosa and her compatriots believe in The Future, in radical revolutionary change and their is a seamlessness between their lives and their actions. They are willing to accept consequences, even prison, as a matter of fact.   They are devoid of what Rosa calls bourgeious sentiment.  Things are the way they are.  Sentiment is not to be indulged.    And their is a final freedom of Rosa’s acceptance of her beliefs, a joy even in her imprisonment.

Rosa is relevant not because I think I should become or be training revolutionaries, or engaging in civil disobedience or going to jail over health care reform…

But the book has forced me to I ask myself with renewed urgency:  To whom are we responsible?

And then:  What will I do about suffering? And how will I teach my children that the suffering of the world is their job?  We may not have directly caused the social and environmental problems (or we may have) we are concerned with, but does that make us any less responsible?

Can we face injustice, poverty, hunger, racism, pollution with a cold eye and do the job we need to do? Can we raise our kids with a fundamental awareness about how their lives are linked to others in their community?And then teach them to live in a way that acknoweldges those links and responsibilities?

Such thinking quickly becomes overwhelming.  And so I return again to the impulse to start with small and local actions and behaviors.  But the challenge is not to stay small and local, but to look for ways to make a difference so that activism in not an extraordinary, heroic gesture toward life, but one of it’s fundamental facts.

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The Why: Universal Voluntary Service

Barack Obama & Joe Biden’s Plan for Universal Voluntary Service is not the first thing that comes to mind these days when we think about what the President Elect will do when he comes to Washington.

The material and psychological toll of the deepening economic crisis is spreading. I see more empty storefronts every week.  Even stable businesses–ones who have no plans to reduce staff–are preparing to weather the economic downturn by reevaluating practices and policies, streamlining facilites operations, halting or limiting pay increases, encouraging sabbaticals where appropriate.   And yesterday I received an email from the President of Princeton University, sent to all alumni, denoting how the University, which has a fantastic endowment, is preparing to weather the next few years. Though our family is not materially worse off than we were yesterday (ok, so I’m not checking the 401K funds), this letter significantly worsened the psychological funk associated with the whole economic tailspin.

But I began Raising Generation O because of the promise of involvement in public life that was afforded newly by the Obama/Biden campaign.  And one of the main platforms on which they came to office was the notion of Service–& its necessity in American civic life.    For Barack Obama, Service is not just a word or a notion, but the bedrock of civic life. He began his career as a community worker, and it doesn’t take much to see how this deep involvement in the real issues of real people’s lives informed his campaign and, now, his plan for Universal Voluntary Service, which is a plan to mobilize Americans to greater participation in neighborhood, community, and national civic life.

The full, ambitious, inspiring plan has nothing to do with politics.  Red, blue, liberal, conservative, radical, atheist, believer, young, old–everyone– can participate, and that’s the whole point.    The Plan calls for an expansion of the Peace Corps and Americorps, for a greater integration of service-learning for middle-, high school and college students, for an increase in investment in the nonprofit sector, and some  tax credits and seed money for certain aspects of the Program.  These are things that can happen no matter what comes next financially.  If Bush failed after 9/11 to ask Americans to serve, you can be sure that in the midst of this new, albeit very different crisis, the same mistake will not happen again.

Please read the full plan.  Get ready for what comes next.

Littlest Volunteer Contest

Wondertime & Disney paired up to sponsor this contest in 2008, which celebrates and rewards families who’ve found innovative, age-appropriate ways to teach their young children about volunteering. You can read about the full list of 2008 Winners, including children who’ve started their own nonprofit businesses, experienced the visceral facts of homelesseness, and banded together to raise money for the sister of a terminally ill classmate.

Read, be inspired.  Maybe even enter for next year.

Generation X Raising Generation O: The Prequel

I’ve been thinking that the why of this blog deserves some time–the why me and the why now. Here’s the why me…which might be read as “who cares” or “why do I care”–questions I always ask of my students.


There was a time–before the dark tunnel of graduate school, and before my time was consumed for caring for two very young children–that service was central to how I understood who I was in the world.  In high school and through college, I volunteered every summer with the full spectrum of developmentally and emotionally disabled children through an amazing, all-volunteer camp, Camp Fatima of New Jersey, which remains one of the highlights of my life.  I built homes in Appalachia, and did several stints at Model UN and Model State Legislature programs (even serving once as President of the Senate (!)).  At Princeton University I volunteered with autistic children and served as an editor for the Progressive Review.

After college, my very-left leanings led me abroad, where I worked for the National Peace Council on Northern Irish issues, which eventually led me to Belfast, where I worked for the Community of the Peace People.  This is the group founded by Nobel Peace Prize winners Mairead Corrigan-Maguire and Betty Williams, along with the journalist Ciaran McKeown.   Mairead was around frequently, and remains easily one of the most compelling and gifted human beings in the world.  Driven by the deep tragedy of her life, a deeper faith, and a commitment to justice, she had a Siren-like ability to rivet your attention. She was simply put, different than most people.  Ciaran became a good friend and advisor, and I miss to this day the friendship of then administrator Ann McCann, who was exceedlingly smart, funny, and ran the Peace People’s programs with insight and compassion. She did the real work, and taught an international staff how to do so as well.

In London and Belfast I reported extensively on peace and community groups on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide. My reporting led me to interview former Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries, officials of the integrated schools movement, community and civil rights workers, and traditional peace and justice groups. This research resulted in the publication of a chapbook, “Peace and Cross-Community Groups in Northern Ireland,” published by the National Peace Council in London, which subsequently became the model for the Northern Irish government’s document of the same name. I’m very proud of this document, which was the first of its kind. Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy.

In Belfast, I wrote regularly for the Peace People’s international newsletter, a bit for local papers, and with the Peace People, I did extensive community work with Catholic and Protestant youth in Belfast and with the wives and children of paramilitary prisoners. It was a heady, exhilarating time. I loved Belfast. I loved volunteering. I learned about the issues from the inside-out. I saw what a difference work on the ground could make in the lives of ordinary people.  I saw that a peaceful solution had to include justice, and this point of view has continued to inform my political view to this day.

When I returned to New York, I landed a job with the War Resisters League, became a war tax resistor and a couple of years later, after I started graduate school, had my wages garnished by the IRS.  This was during the Gulf War, and in many ways, we were at the center of the protest movement, particularly with regard to conscientious objectors, who were extensively counseled by one of our staff members.  At WRL I worked with lifelong committed activists and met many more through their national network.  I worked, too, with COs from the Second World War, who are among the most impressive humans I’ve ever had the honor to know.  Though I’m Catholic, I loved that it was a secular organization and could speak to issues of peace and justice in a way that did not depend on faith.  In the thick of all the war and protest, I shaved my head, and many years later, my boyfriend at the time, the poet John Hennessy, wrote another poem that channles these times.

And then, more or less, came graduate school. And marriage, and Ella and Finn, and work through their school is about all I have been able to think about. Until now, when I feel compelled to return somehow to some of those things which connect my life to the larger political world; to act with my children, not just to educate them; to reenter political life, this time in a more moderate, pragmatic way, because even though my sister still thinks we’re way out left way out here in California, I’m not the radical I once was, and I like my hair longer. I’m ready to disengage the irony and the deep sense of disenfranchisement that came with 8 years of Bush, and to find a way to act again.

And this time, I’m bringing my kids along with me, and we’ll see what happens.