Culture ShiftDIY reparations, books to read, films to watch, and how to give a body back to the planetscroll down arrow

Christine Nobiss, Plains Cree-Salteaux of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan and founder and chair of Indigenous Iowa, lives with her family on land lent to them by a local property owner to continue the social justice work they found at Standing Rock.YES! Photo by Jen Madigan

Do-it-Yourself Reparations The end of White supremacy doesn’t have to involve an official decree. Just one step at a time.

Photo by Shane Balkowitsch

Watani Stiner sits in his room at the restorative justice-centered house Sister Water, at Canticle Farm in the Fruitvale District in Oakland, Calif. After being released, Stiner leads monthly speaking engagements at high schools, colleges, and organizations centered on criminal justice. YES! Photo by Veronica Weber

I had a fascinating breakfast conversation with my 11-year-old daughter a few days back. The night before I had a fitful dream — one that was short on plot and imagery, but chock-full of emotion. In this case, the feeling was of a deep, immovable sorrow. When I awoke, it didn’t take long to recognize that the article I’d been working on — this article — was definitely working on me, too.

Chris Moore-Backman

Chris Moore-Backman is author of The Gandhian Iceberg: A Nonviolence Manifesto for the Age of the Great Turning and producer of Bringing Down the New Jim Crow, a radio documentary series. He offers heartfelt thanks to his daughter, Isa Anderson, for her vital contribution to this article.


During breakfast I knew my daughter could tell I wasn’t on solid ground. She’s a sensitive soul, and I figured I should go ahead and tell her what was going on. “I’m struggling with my article, Isa,” I told her. She already knew that I was working on a piece about reparations. The word was new to her, though the concept was second-nature. She took a bite of her apple as I continued: “What do you do when there’s more damage than you could ever hope to repair?” Still chewing, Isa gently prodded me with her eyes, not quite understanding what I was getting at. “Like with what White people have done — and continue to do — to Black people and to Native Americans,” I said. “All the violence and theft. All the broken promises. What do you do when there’s so much more than you could possibly repair?”

Isa finished her bite, then spoke without hesitation: “You should repair as much as you can,” she said. “And then you should teach young people about what happened, so it doesn’t happen again.” Guileless, she took another bite from her apple. It gave her time to find the rest of her answer: “And you need to say sorry.”

The end of an age, the advent of a movement of movements

The most hopeful interpretation I’ve heard of the still-surreal outcome of November’s presidential election is that Donald Trump’s ascendancy does not mark the beginning of a new era so much as the end of an age. While the new president and his supporters champion their Reaganesque revival, some intuit this shocking swing of the pendulum as the official beginning of the end for the reign of capitalism, patriarchy, and White supremacy.

It’s a gargantuan claim, to say the least. And, in view of our current circumstances as a civilization, we’d better hope it’s on the mark.

The intensification of social crises around the world and the threat of all-out ecological collapse have made clear that the time for global action has more than arrived. But our current multifaceted emergency also signals that the scale and character of the action now needed point to the rising up of more than a movement. A growing number of changemakers have begun pointing to the emergence of a massive movement of movements as our greatest hope. In her essay “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World,” Naomi Klein describes the indivisibility of capital-driven violence against the Earth and systemically racist violence against people of color. In the end she reaches the conclusion that “the most pressing task” must be that of “strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements.” This, she argues, is “the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo.”

We’re in a bona fide all-hands-on-deck situation here. In order to rally the strength and vision our historical moment requires, our many and varied social and ecological movements are being called beyond mere collaboration and intersectionality. We’re being called to a level of coherence and unity unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.

And this is where it gets really tricky and plenty overwhelming. As a White person who has moved in a variety of multiracial movement spaces, I have a sense of what the above assignment actually entails. I’ve come to know something of the vast distance between collaboration and true coherence. It’s more or less equal, I’ve found, to the distance we Whites tend to fall short of genuinely meriting the trust of our sisters and brothers of color. And let’s be clear: In the context of our nation’s tortured racial history and present, when it comes to the work of establishing such trust, the lion’s share of responsibility falls to us.

In the context of our nation’s tortured racial history and present, when it comes to the work of establishing such trust, the lion’s share of responsibility falls to us Whites.

Preaching to the choir

The purpose of this article is not to persuade readers still on the fence about the moral and practical necessity of reparations in the United States. For that reason, I’m not dwelling here on the egregious disparities of wealth, income, employment, education, health care, and criminal justice that so define the racial landscape of this country, and which can be easily traced to White supremacist crimes against humanity perpetrated here, such as slavery and genocide, and to the contemporary racist systems and structures that are the living legacy of those crimes. Neither am I connecting the White privilege dots for folks whose knee-jerk response to the mention of reparations is, in one form or another: “But that was so long ago,” or, “My family never owned slaves or stole land from anybody.”

Plenty of articles have covered all of the above extensively. My purpose here is different. I’m addressing White folks already in the choir to make the case that at the cusp of the convergence of a great movement of movements, the widespread, systematic enactment of reparations for the victims of White supremacy in the U.S. should be at the top of our social change priority list.

I say this cognizant of the fact that those of us who identify as White, or who are identified as White in our society, represent a huge and unwieldy spectrum. The spoils of slavery, genocide, and continuing systemic racism are distributed among us in a most unequal fashion. The call for reparations doesn’t frame White America as a monolith. Rather, it challenges each of us to take responsibility for our part and to repair what we can and should.

Systemic reparations move us forward, but only so far

Recent reparations developments bear both hope and warning. In Chicago, the ordinance for victims of police torture represents a crucial advance. Daniel Hunter, an organizer and activist trainer with Training for Change, applauds the achievement.

“What I love about the Chicago reparations is that they model that a systemic problem has to be solved with systemic answers,” he says. “Reparations can’t merely be an exchange of capital. It needs to require that systems themselves change and become better.” Torture victims and community organizers in Chicago have concretized what many have assumed would never get out of the realm of fantasy. Their success makes the call for more sweeping forms of reparations seem far less ethereal.

Meanwhile, just days prior to the inauguration of our nation’s 45th president, resilient, if battle-weary, Congressman John Conyers reintroduced congressional bill HR40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. The bill was originally introduced in 1989, and Conyers has reintroduced it each and every congressional term since, and he vows to do so until it passes. Although the bill’s chance of passing in our current political climate is as slim as ever, racial justice advocates take heart that such national legislation stands ready for the day the tide turns.

While the Chicago ordinance represents a crucial stride for justice, and HR40 promises even more sweeping justice, it’s important to acknowledge their serious limitations. Neither adequately and directly addresses the core dilemma facing us in relation to White supremacy, which is, after all, the fundamental cause of the need for reparations. Neither Chicago’s reparations nor HR40 asks, encourages, or challenges everyday White folks — including everyday progressive and radical White folks — to renounce their routine enjoyment of the fruits of White supremacy.

Hunter’s point is crucial: Systemic injustice requires a systemic response. But a critical part of that systemic response must speak to the moral responsibility of regular White folks and challenge us into new ways of thinking and behaving.

Why? Because there can be no end to White supremacy until White folks renounce its spoils and privileges. The core dilemma for those of us who are White is that we don’t get to bring White supremacy with us to the other side of the transition to a White supremacy-free society. As Michelle Alexander puts it: “Nothing short of a radical shift in public consciousness holds any hope for us to end, once and for all, our nation’s history and habit of creating caste-like systems in America.” We’re in need of a comprehensive reparations approach that reflects and nurtures this radical shift, an approach that’s powerful enough to catalyze what Ta-Nahesi Coates calls “a national reckoning.” For White folks, this means that reparations need to be nothing less than jarring. If we’re not feeling seriously disoriented, the needed shift probably isn’t happening.

We need not wait for a governmental decree or the findings of an official commission to make a start, and we need not limit our reparations to programmatic forms of financial compensation.

Reparations at the grassroots

A radically hopeful beginning would be for those of us who are White and who are already awake to the moral rightness and necessity of reparations to set aside enough time for some brutally honest personal inquiry: What might it look like for me to offer reparations right now, in direct proportion to the unearned advantages (including, for those of us who have it, surplus wealth) that my Whiteness has afforded me?

The fact is we need not wait for a governmental decree or the findings of an official commission to make a start, and we need not limit ourselves to a definition of reparations as programmatic forms of financial compensation. Some inspiring and instructive experiments are underway right now.

Near La Plata, Missouri, core members of the Possibility Alliance, a land-based intentional community and hub for nonviolence education and organizing, have reached out to local indigenous people and to an indigenous historian to learn the history of the land on which they live. “In the early years of my environmentalism, there was this idea of, ‘Oh, we’ll just live simply and practice nonviolence, and everything will be good,’” says Ethan Hughes, co-founder of the project. “But we’ve realized that if we don’t take acts, however imperfect, to try to heal these relationships, all the other work will be for naught.”

As the Possibility Alliance plans to scale down and relocate, they are looking to return some or all of 110 acres to local indigenous groups. In addition, with their sights now set on Belfast, Maine, the community has reached out to members of the Wabanaki Nation there to seek its blessing for the project’s relocation to the tribe’s historic land and to ask how to be of service. “Whether it’s in relation to the African American history of kidnapping, slavery, and genocide, or the Native American history of kidnapping, stolen land, and genocide, if we don’t try to heal these relationships, there can never be a healed humanity and Earth,” Hughes says.

In the Fruitvale District of Oakland, California, the urban intentional community Canticle Farm is experimenting with another approach to reparations. Anne Symens-Bucher, a founding member of the small-scale farm, recently turned to the project’s extended network of White supporters to raise funds to purchase a home on an adjacent lot. Upon completing some needed renovations on the newly acquired home, Canticle Farm opened its doors to men of color who had been paroled from life sentences. The vision and restorative justice-based program of the home is now steered by its residents, in partnership with the rest of the Canticle Farm community.

Symens-Bucher explains that the prisoner re-entry house represents a small initial response to the grave, race-based injustices and disparities that characterize our society and are starkly epitomized by our criminal justice system. “The Preamble to the United States Constitution begins with the words, ‘We the People,’” she says. “There’s a silver lining to the fact that there has yet to be official reparations to people of color for the generations of genocide inflicted by this nation. It puts the responsibility back on our shoulders.”

Restorative Justice at Work

An intentional community in Oakland, California, gives previously incarcerated men another chance at pursuing educational opportunities and careers as an exercise in restorative justice.

Also in the Bay Area, the local and all-volunteer chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice, has placed reparations at the center of its work. Therefore, fundraising is a core function of its operations.

“For us, fundraising is first and foremost an opportunity for political education,” says Elliot Karl, co-chair of Bay Area SURJ’s fundraising committee. “Our task is to help White folks situate themselves in our nation’s history of racial injustice and inequity, to see their access to wealth and resources as resulting from that context, and to begin understanding reparations as an integral part of how they can participate in the movement.”

Bay Area SURJ has pledged that their entire annual programming budget will be matched dollar for dollar in unconditional donations to the people of color-led organizations with which they collaborate. That budget foots the bill for their political education and outreach programs, direct action training and mobilization, and more.

Over the past year, the group has surpassed their fundraising goal. The program expenses since July 2016 were just over $30,000, while funds raised for partner organizations totaled more than $110,000. Nevertheless, Karl is slow to tout the accomplishment. Nor does he cite his group’s reparations efforts as a case of special initiative on the part of White people. “We’re responding to a longstanding call from communities of color,” he says. “As far as we’re concerned, this is a moral obligation.”

Affirming and answering the demand

The demand for reparations is indeed a longstanding call. When asked about it, Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and co-founder of All of Us or None, doesn’t mince his words: “Hell, Black folks have been working this thing since 40 acres and a mule!”

Of late, thought-leaders Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson are among the most notable reparations advocates, while the collective platform of the Movement for Black Lives heralds its own powerful and systematic set of reparations demands.

As self-evident as it may seem, it’s critical to acknowledge that such demands for reparations are raised — almost without exception — by people of color. The absence of White voices echoing this demand, and the absence of White action answering it, epitomize the grip of our supremacy. It’s past time that we who have received undue benefit from our ancestors’ wrongdoings, and who continue to receive undue benefit from our nation’s systemic racism, humbly and unequivocally affirm and answer the demand.

My daughter Isa’s response to me a few mornings back gives us a concise and powerful lead to how we might do so:

“Repair as much as you can.”

Nunn encourages White folks to connect with, and channel their resources toward, the groups working to advance the comprehensive reparations demands put forth in the Movement for Black Lives platform. Whether it’s free and full access to education, a guaranteed minimum livable income, or the ensuring of access to and control of food sources, housing, and land for all Black people in the U.S., the reparations plank of this historic platform offers a wide variety of entry points for White folks looking to offer support.

Christine Nobiss, Plains Cree-Salteaux of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan and founder and chair of Indigenous Iowa, encourages Whites to begin by learning whose land they live on. From there she advises humbly reaching out to the indigenous people of that land, in order to recognize them and to offer to be of service. She also encourages support for new indigenous-led movement-building camps that are being established around the country, such as Little Creek Camp in Iowa, where she resides. “Social and environmental justice are inextricably linked,” she says. “These camps really get that, which is part of the reason they’re so important.”

Nobiss insists that reparations must be multifaceted and believes that direct action can be one of its most powerful expressions. “It’s all about intention,” she says. “We saw reparations on the front lines at Standing Rock, when White people — who had come to realize how much violence and abuse people of color are facing — put their bodies in front of indigenous people to protect them. I can’t think of a more intrinsic example of reparations than of putting your own life on the line.”

YES! photos by Lori Panico
YES! photos by Lori Panico

At Little Creek Camp, Indigenous Iowa founder Christine Nobiss prepares breakfast. At right, Lakasha, Nobiss and her daughter, Chris Truitt, Russell Binder, George Mccloskey, Brandon Saul, Terry Townsend. Nobiss says direct action can be one of the most powerful expressions of reparations. “It’s all about intention,” she says. “We saw reparations on the front lines at Standing Rock, when White people—who had come to realize how much violence and abuse people of color are facing—put their bodies in front of indigenous people to protect them.”YES! Photos by Jen Madigan

“Teach young people about what happened, so it doesn’t happen again.”

The second dimension of Isa’s action plan also steers us to the reparations demands of the Movement for Black Lives platform, one of which is a thorough revamping of school curricula to ensure that African and African American-centered history, struggles, and accomplishments are respectfully and adequately taught. The bottom line being that treating such content as an add-on, if that, to White-centric curricula is a grievous example of White supremacy that needs to go. What’s needed instead is holistic, truth-telling curricula that presents Black subject content “as part of an ongoing narrative of oppression and resilience, not as historical artifacts.” Clearly the same holds true for Native American content, and that of the other groups that have been victims of White supremacy in the U.S.

Another layer of this educational revamp should encourage young people to focus on the experience of the oppressor class as well. White anti-racism author and educator Tim Wise astutely observes the deeply damaging ways that White supremacy “doubles back” on Whites themselves, and that this needs to be addressed if we’re going to move in the direction of authentic healing. “One of the things White supremacy required of White people was the death of empathy,” Wise says. “Only by causing us to numb ourselves to the pain of others could otherwise decent people (which most White folks are) collaborate with such a monstrous system.” If we’re going to “teach young people about what happened,” this part must be included.

“Say sorry.”

Whatever we might hope to do to repair the damage that’s been done, whatever we might hope to pay in face of the debt, whatever we might hope to do to offset the wrongdoing, none of it can amount to more than a sorely partial expression of atonement. Because of this, those of us who are White need to grieve, and we need to apologize.

The example of Australia, on February 13, 2008, illustrates a powerful, mass expression of collective regret. When Kevin Rudd, then prime minister of Australia, formally apologized to the “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal people across Australia, that continent and the entire world took notice of the remarkable power and simplicity of this most human of gestures. The apology marked the establishment of Australia’s National Sorry Day, an annual day of atonement for the social engineering policy that ripped an estimated 50,000 children from their Aboriginal families between 1910 and the 1970s. Rudd’s eloquent and detailed apology was broadcast and thoroughly publicized throughout Australia.

The event is far more instructive than key apology moments in the U.S. Neither Bill Clinton’s expression of regret in 1998 for slavery or the U.S. Congress’s official apology in 2008 for slavery and Jim Crow cut through the media haze in our country. Even more obscured was the 2009 apology to Native Americans enacted by Congress and President Obama, which was buried deeply and tragically within a defense appropriations bill. Few Americans are aware that any such official apologies were ever made.

Our nation desperately needs something akin to Australia’s National Sorry Day.

Even better, we can begin to envision the establishment of two such days of remembrance and apology — one in honor of Native Americans and another in honor of African Americans.

For such an accomplishment to come about, however, and for it to represent a real and abiding stride for justice and healing, we clearly need to find our way to the other side of a revolutionary cultural transformation. For those of us who are White and who grasp that almost everything that’s been taken can never be restored, this signals the gritty and painful internal work of grieving.

Nothing else, I believe, will equip us for the culture-shifting work that’s now needed in each and every one of our home communities. Nothing else will ready us to reach out to our brothers and sisters of color — to say sorry, person to person, in our own unique ways. Such simple, personal gestures may yet prove to be the most revolutionary actions of all.

Chris Moore-Backman

Chris Moore-Backman is author of The Gandhian Iceberg: A Nonviolence Manifesto for the Age of the Great Turning and producer of Bringing Down the New Jim Crow, a radio documentary series. He offers heartfelt thanks to his daughter, Isa Anderson, for her vital contribution to this article.

Books + Film + Music

Let the People Lead Their Own Movements

YES! Illustration By FRAN MURPHY

YES! Illustration By FRAN MURPHY

The time we’re living in requires an extraordinary understanding of who we are, what we’re working toward, and how to get there. As people committed to social justice in the time of Trump, our challenge is twofold: resisting an administration that came into power through an election won on the dehumanization of marginalized people, while also being mindful not to reproduce the devastating hierarchies that mimic that power. So far, we’ve largely come up short.

Aura Bogado

Aura Bogado is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and more.

A new book by Jordan Flaherty, No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality, offers insight into how the practice of “saviorism” injures our movements and provides visions for an alternative and much-needed praxis.

You’re no doubt familiar with the White savior: a person of privilege picks a cause they know little to nothing about and insists on solutions that inevitably cause more harm than good. As Flaherty explains, the savior mentality cannot exist without turning people into objects who need rescuing.

“It is as old as conquest and as enduring as colonialism,” he writes. As an activist and a journalist, Flaherty has witnessed firsthand the harms of saviorism and neatly lays out countless examples of its failure — perhaps most poignantly when he writes about Brandon Darby. Flaherty cites numerous articles and other activists for his well-researched chapter about Darby, a man he’s known for several years.

Darby’s origin myth, as it were, begins in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when Darby says he rescued Robert King, a Black Panther who spent three decades in solitary confinement until his conviction was overturned in 2001. Darby, along with anarchist organizer scott crow, “had taken a boat to Robert King’s house [and] faced down state troopers who got in his way.” Shortly after, Darby became a leader in “Common Ground, an anarchist-leaning volunteer group that brought thousands of young, mostly White volunteers to work on rebuilding New Orleans,” writes Flaherty.

No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality

No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality

Jordan Flaherty, AK Press, 2016

What followed, as described in No More Heroes, is a case of “disaster masculinity,” a term coined by scholar Rachel Luft to describe the familiar practice in which charismatic men (often White — but not always) poise themselves to presumably lead a marginalized group to freedom. What ensues is destructive abuse and exploitation against the very people these saviors claim to want to rescue.

As described in No More Heroes, in the case of Darby, it was not only the Black people of New Orleans who were disregarded in order to let Darby shine, but also women who were sidelined through the use of sexual assault under his leadership at Common Ground. Despite constant warnings about and accusations against him, Darby garnered and maintained support from well-intentioned men and was allowed to continue to do his work however he saw fit. That work paved a path of ruin.

Shortly thereafter, according to Darby’s own account, he became an informant for the FBI.

As Flaherty explains, Darby tipped off the FBI about Austin, Texas, activist (and Flaherty’s friend) Riad Hamad, a full-time schoolteacher who used to sell crafts in support of Palestinian children, an operation he ran from his home. Darby apparently convinced the FBI that Hamad had been living a double life, but a subsequent raid of Hamad’s home found no evidence of any crime. Less than two months later, Hamad was found dead in an Austin lake with his mouth duct taped and his arms bound. The death was ruled a suicide — but Darby suggested to Flaherty that the FBI may have killed Hamad. Months later, Darby was outed as an informant.

Men like Darby, who take center stage in struggles they know nothing about, who are applauded for doing so, and who are excused for abusive behavior, don’t always turn into informants for the FBI. But the truth is that they don’t have to. To make this point, No More Heroes quotes scholar Courtney Desiree Morris’ essay “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants”: “Before or regardless of whether they are ever recruited by the state to disrupt a movement or destabilize an organization, they’ve likely become well versed in practices of disruptive behavior.”

That is, activist men who come to command without listening to those they’re ostensibly helping — and dismiss marginalized people who critique their methods — produce a kind of devastation that makes the project of systemic oppression all that much easier. Darby’s work, however outwardly flawed, was also unconditionally backed by community supporters. “This period in New Orleans crystallized the idea of the savior for me. It is not just about Brandon Darby, but also about the people who followed him,” writes Flaherty. “Darby is not so much a prototypical savior as he is the kind of dangerous person who can rise to power when we are seeking saviors.” The way that saviors are doing the work, and the way it’s supported by activists seeking a savior, only serves to perpetuate inequity and sow discord. And that has a lasting, if not permanent, effect on marginalized people involved in movement work, who are already less visible.

Flaherty’s book doesn’t focus solely on Darby — in fact, Darby’s mostly limited to one of 11 chapters in No More Heroes. The rest cover observations from cities as far away as Gaza, and organizations ranging from Teach for America to Occupy Wall Street. Part of what will strike you about No More Heroes is the multitude of voices included throughout its pages. The author manages to amplify the voices of people who have drawn significant conclusions across the spectrum of privilege and marginalization. Although I recommend reading the book in its entirety, most of the chapters stand alone, so that you can pick up what piques your interest from the chapter titles. The final three chapters, which cover Occupy, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter — along with a thoughtful ending on how to decenter privilege — are worth reading in one sitting if possible. Flaherty’s knowledge of the last few decades of grassroots organizing proves especially incisive here.

Flaherty concludes his first chapter by quoting the Zapatista saying “preguntando caminamos,” which he translates as “Walking, we ask questions,” explaining that one shouldn’t “be so afraid to take action that you are immobilized.” Early on, I returned to these pages over and over again, mostly because my interpretation of this phrase is different. For me, a better translation might be “Asking questions, we walk.” But even that translation doesn’t convey the depth of the words in Spanish, which can also be interpreted to mean “Asking questions, we walked,” to indicate the past tense of asking and walking to arrive at the present.

Preguntando caminamos originally comes from an early Zapatista communiqué in 1994, which tells the story of two gods, Ik’al and Votán, who were one. One asked the other to walk, and the other asked how and where. The two gods couldn’t move at the same time, so they agreed to walk together but separately. All in small and deliberate steps. It doesn’t matter who walked first, the story goes — it matters that they asked questions before moving. The gods have walked with questions ever since and have never stopped. And, in the Zapatista story, real people have learned from the gods that questions serve us to walk together and separately, and never stand still.

By the end of reading No More Heroes, it mattered less to me how Flaherty, a writer I’ve long admired, interpreted the phrase. It mattered more that he took the time to incorporate his understanding of this phrase in his opening chapter. I know he and I are walking together but separately. Flaherty’s book is a critical and welcomed meditation on how imperative it is to keep a measured stride on the long marathon toward justice. It couldn’t come at a better time.

Aura Bogado

Aura Bogado is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and more.

Books + Film + Music

Face-to-Face Joy and “Real Things”

YES! Illustration By FRAN MURPHY

YES! Illustration By FRAN MURPHY

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life …

—Henry David Thoreau

A few years ago I was talking with a group of UC Santa Cruz students, and I asked them how they felt about the digital life—always on their cell phones, always online. Almost without exception they started telling me everything they disliked. The saddest thing was that they considered themselves addicted, finding it almost impossible to break free.

Cecile Andrews

Cecile Andrews is the author of Circle of Simplicity, Slow Is Beautiful, and Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good. She works at building local community in her Seattle neighborhood. See her TED Talk, “Can We Talk?”

They wanted to be free, though. They sensed that they were missing something.

I think these kids would like the new book by David Sax, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. He writes, in a very readable manner, about the growth of analog culture over the past few years—the lure of vinyl records, the almost reverent use of Moleskine notebooks, the fun of board games. In fact, I went into a bookstore not long ago and there were long lines of young people buying books—real books!

This isn’t an effort to turn back the clock and get rid of the digital economy. Sax sees it as an attempt to return to the “real.” So I suspect he and these students would like my favorite Henry David Thoreau quote.

Too much of our time in our hectic consumer society seems like “not life”—phony and artificial. We want, instead, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow,” as Thoreau puts it. And being involved with “real” things—things you can touch or taste or manipulate—is attracting people.

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

David Sax, PublicAffairs, 2016

Actually, Thoreau is particularly relevant to Sax’s thesis. I spent many years working with people trying to simplify their lives. We came together in simplicity circles to reduce our materialism, our overwork, and our isolation. We were trying to live deliberately, make conscious choices, and look for new sources of happiness and contentment outside consumer society. Is the return to analog something similar?

As Sax shows, this interest in living deliberately, making conscious choices, seems to have resurfaced. And much of the interest is coming from millennials.

What Sax finds is surprising: “The younger someone was, the more digitally exposed their generation was, the less I found them enamored by digital technology, and the more they were wary of its effects. [They were] buying new turntables, film cameras, and novels in paperback … These kids revered analog. They craved it. And they were more articulate about its benefits than was anyone else I spoke with.”

About a year ago a couple of young people in Seattle started simplicity meetups, using a digital approach to organizing them. In the process they discovered my book Circle of Simplicity and the fact that I live in Seattle, so now I’m leading another simplicity circle, talking in person instead of online. The circle members seem hungry for this chance to talk about their lives. And the goodwill and affection that flows from our conversations is incredible.

So the issue is bigger than just liking old records or board games. Yes, people like the “realness” of analog life, but there is something even more important: the desire for community and connection with other people. Connection online is just not the same as getting together with people face to face. In fact, digital technology can separate people—especially when people are on their phones while they’re with others.

There’s been a lot written about this separation, such as MIT’s Sherry Turkle in her books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. In particular, Turkle explores the research that says students have had declining scores in the area of empathy—the ability to feel what others feel.

And empathy is crucial. It is essential to the dramatic cultural shift we need if life on Earth is to survive. We need to move from a culture of “every man for himself” to “we’re all in this together.” We need to save the planet, and we need to save the people. To do this, we need to come together and experience empathy.

Sax does an excellent job of exploring this idea in his discussion of education. He shows how the shift to digital in education has not improved our academic test scores. In fact, scores continue to drop. Particularly disappointing are the university online courses. He concludes that it’s because learning comes best from the in-person relationship between student and teacher.

But it’s more than just the student-teacher relationship. It’s a collective experience of people coming together in groups. Ironically, the workplaces taking this idea most seriously are in Silicon Valley. Sax visited high-tech companies and discovered that most were designed with spaces for people to gather together. The aim is to create “a strong, interpersonal corporate culture, bound by real relationships, in an industry where the nature of the work, and the tools used to do it, naturally lean toward isolation.” They have discovered that people are most creative when they’re face to face in groups and not just working online.

As I was finishing Revenge of the Analog, I remembered a book I’d read a few years before—Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Her thesis lends weight to Sax’s research. She shows how throughout history people danced in the streets for the delight and joy of it. Collective joy! Doesn’t that sound wonderful? But the dancing declined as social hierarchy developed—the kings and knights and rich people always disapproved. Ehrenreich concludes that the powerful don’t like people gathering because people who dance in the streets can’t be controlled.

Could this vision of collective joy be relevant to our reclamation of the analog? Are we being controlled by the corporate digital life? Can we break free? Only if we have the connection and empathy that emerges when we come together.

Experiencing empathy gives us the power to resist those who would control us. We need empathy for the sake of life. Do we see it beginning to happen in the marches and protests that Trump has provoked? Are these marches and protests our version of collective joy, of dancing in the streets?

So there are hidden depths in Sax’s book. We start off learning about the interesting, yet—to me—insignificant reemergence of an interest in vinyl records. We end up with the conclusion that true creativity and change can only come from people joining together, creating community and a caring culture.

As I read Sax’s book, my Thoreau quote kept presenting itself, reminding me of our human desire to live with depth and aliveness. And what did I find in the last chapter? Sax returns to a summer camp he attended when he was a boy, a place named Camp Walden. In revisiting it, he discovers young campers who are grateful that they have been denied the use of their digital devices. The camp flier states, “We want campers to experience nature with all their senses, and engage directly with each other without the separation of a screen.”

“Directly with each other”—how wonderful.

So, I continue to meet face to face with my simplicity circle, enjoying the irony that a digital social networking tool brought us together, allowing us to experience the depth and aliveness of meeting directly with each other.

Cecile Andrews

Cecile Andrews is the author of Circle of Simplicity, Slow Is Beautiful, and Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good. She works at building local community in her Seattle neighborhood. See her TED Talk, “Can We Talk?”

Books + Film + Music

Pipeline Protest Before Standing Rock

YES! Illustration By FRAN MURPHY

YES! Illustration By FRAN MURPHY

We live in an era of Trump, whose denial of climate science brings to mind a quote attributed to Louis XV: “After me, the Deluge.” The disdain of the Ancien Régime for change brought about the French Revolution and the end of their world. Trump’s recent removal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement and his orders pushing forward both Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines makes one wonder if our present regime is capable of change or if, like the French ruling class of the 18th century, they cannot let go of their privilege — in this case the outdated get-rich-quick schemes that drove colonization of this hemisphere.

Jacqueline Keeler

Jacqueline Keeler is Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota and editor of The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears.

The film First Daughter and the Black Snake shows this attitude on the baffled, even scornful, faces of Enbridge corporate representatives and Minnesota state officials during Iñupiaq performance artist Allison Akootchook Warden’s testimony at a pipeline scoping hearing. She dons a child’s knit polar bear cap and white fur mittens to rap in a polar bear voice, “There used to be so much ice. It was just really, really, really nice … Ohhhh, where did all the ice go? Where did it go? Do you know?”

First Daughter and the Black Snake

Directed by Keri Pickett, 2017, 104 min.

In her first full-length documentary, filmmaker Keri Pickett spotlights the fight that her longtime friend Winona LaDuke — the internationally known Anishinaabe activist and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate — leads against the proposed Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline that threatens the lakes of wild rice that are material and spiritual sustenance for her people on the White Earth Reservation. Before the encampment of 10,000 to 15,000 “water protectors” at Standing Rock garnered worldwide attention, there were several pipeline fights like this one, led by tribal leaders, that got very little public notice or coverage in the media.

After the polar bear testimony, a furious Minnesota state official, Jamie MacAlister, chastises LaDuke for insisting Warden be given time to testify. Standing over LaDuke, MacAlister — a White woman — lectures the Native American leader: “This is not a performance art venue. I realize you perceive this all to be a giant performance art, I realize that. And if that’s what it is, maybe the question is why are we even here doing any of this?”

Considering that the real decision-making regarding the pipeline was taking place elsewhere, there is some unexpected truth to this bureaucrat’s words. Is it all performance? When MacAlister reveals her department has no clue about how to recognize the tribe’s sovereignty and right to government-to-government consultation on the pipeline, this becomes resoundingly clear.

In fact, as treaties are only entered into by sovereign nations — not states — it is the federal government that should be facilitating the consultation between the Minnesota Ojibway tribes and the United States. The Sandpiper pipeline’s proposed pathway crosses the wild rice gathering sites on land that was ceded by the Ojibway (known in their own language as Anishinaabe), but to which the tribe asserts it retains traditional gathering and hunting rights. In the previous two treaties from 1837 and 1842, these usufructuary rights were explicitly mentioned. However, in the 1855 treaty they are not. Despite this, the Minnesota v. Mille Lacs (1999) U.S. Supreme Court decision found in favor of the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa (another name used for the Ojibway) and their rights to hunt and fish. In the film, Ojibway tribal members attempt to challenge state jurisdiction and invoke those treaty rights.

The film shows the fight against the pipeline through the activism of LaDuke, the “First Daughter” of the title. In the film, the name is said to be Ojibway. However, it is borrowed from the Dakota/Lakota language, in which every child has a standard name based on their birth order. There is some focus on LaDuke’s life story, including an interview with her mother, Betty LaDuke, a White Jewish woman who describes how she first met Winona’s half-Anishinaabe father, Vincent LaDuke, in New York City. Winona was born in Los Angeles, where her father worked as an extra playing Indian roles in Hollywood films.

When the couple divorced, Betty LaDuke moved with young Winona to Oregon, where she became an accomplished artist and college professor. Oddly enough, the film fails to mention Vincent LaDuke’s controversial activities after the divorce: Using his Anishinaabe name, Sun Bear, he started his own tribe, the Bear Tribe. His 1980 book, The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology, was a take on Native American culture that made him a leader in the then-flourishing New Age movement, a role that was denounced by the American Indian Movement and the National Indian Youth Council.

In the film, LaDuke recounts how her proud father once visited her at Harvard and told her, “You’re a smart young woman, but I don’t want to hear your philosophy unless you can grow corn.” The words made a deep impact on her, and some of the most gorgeous scenes in the film are of LaDuke and her family and staff planting and harvesting heritage corn varieties and collecting rice in canoes gliding silently through stunning blue lakes.

In the film, LaDuke recounts how her proud father once visited her at Harvard and told her, “You’re a smart young woman, but I don’t want to hear your philosophy unless you can grow corn.”

Lovely scenes of LaDuke with her children and grandchildren in a beautiful two-story lakeside home in an idyllic setting contrast with the grittier depictions of poverty and gang life on the White Earth reservation seen in 2015’s The Seventh Fire, co-produced by Terrence Malick, Natalie Portman, and Chris Eyre. Poverty and the despair it brings to the communities LaDuke serves is never shown in First Daughter and the Black Snake. Neither is LaDuke’s third-place finish for tribal chair, a race that was ongoing during filming. These are missed opportunities for insights into tribal and reservation life and how a small community feels about its most famous resident.

In The Seventh Fire, Kevin Fineday, a teenager from the reservation town of Pine Point, says, “No one’s gonna come around here thinking they can change this neighborhood. It’s always going to be the same. That’s the way it is around here. I was raised doing all of this stuff — drugs, violence — and it’s become a natural part of my life. Most likely it’s going to be worse.” At a White House screening of the film, both Fineday and Rob Brown, a now-reformed drug dealer and gang leader featured in the film, told the audience they had to leave the reservation to change their lives for the better.

This is the same community where First Daughter shows LaDuke installing seven solar panels, and where she established a healthy Native food program at the local school. How could two such different depictions of early 21st-century Ojibway life be made? While Pickett’s film underscores many scenes with world music (most by Nahko and Medicine for the People) and the plaintive sounds of the Native American flute, in The Seventh Fire the young people of Pine Point are listening to rap, not about polar bears, but of OG breaking down their reality: “This is the real, the real cocaine crack sh-t, that killer smack sh-t.”

In the end, the Sandpiper pipeline was canceled by Enbridge. The film notes this happened a day after the fourth annual “Ride Against the Current of Oil,” organized by LaDuke to fulfill a vision she had of horses crushing the “Black Snake” (the pipeline) with their medicine power. In a strange and tragic development, Michael Dahl, who is prominently seen on the rides in an otter fur hat and identified as an Anishinaabe traditional wild-rice harvester, was charged recently with felony neglect of horses from the ride that were found starved to death in January. In a recent interview, LaDuke announced plans to continue the rides in the fight against the proposed rerouting of Line 3, which follows the same pathway as Sandpiper.

In The Seventh Fire, Brown says, “Tradition is drinking or gambling — that’s a tradition. A long time ago, culture was a tradition.” In contrast, LaDuke is coming from a more hopeful place, as described in her view of traditional self-sufficiency: “Creator gives us this good life where you can get sugar from a tree and you can get food from the water.”

LaDuke, raised by two college professors in a White college town, comes from a place very different from Fineday and Brown: a place of safety and security where anything is possible. When will the children in Pine Point have that sense of safety and security? Is this achievable in any Ojibway leader’s lifetime? The film gives the appearance that the Sandpiper fight didn’t garner widespread community support like Standing Rock, but this is never explored.

Public information hearings for Enbridge 3 began in June, with evidentiary hearings scheduled for autumn. Obviously, the fight to save the wild rice gathering beds from pipelines and climate change cannot wait for the Ojibway children to be healed from the trauma of poverty and colonization. What could have been explored in the film was how Ojibway people, coming from many different experiences, are reconstituting themselves like the Dakota/Lakota people of Standing Rock, and how their differing experiences impact the gifts they bring back to the circle, to the people. What first daughter LaDuke brings to it requires a full tribal and familial context to fully appreciate.

Jacqueline Keeler

Jacqueline Keeler is Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota and editor of The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears.

Yes! But How?

DIY Ways to Live SustainablyGive a Dead Body Back to Earth

YES! Illustration By Jennifer Luxton

YES! Illustration By Jennifer Luxton

Whether it’s sudden or a long time coming, we all draw a last breath. What happens next is largely driven by tradition, regulation, and a multimillion-dollar industry: Approximately half of Americans choose cremation, and the other half are buried. But what if you want your body to be useful still? Ideas emerging from an alternative community of mortuary and hospice professionals offer ways to give your body back to nature. As strange as some of these methods might seem now, they are at least getting us talking “outside the box” about death.

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

Mushroom mycelia are woven into the suit to help decompose flesh.

Infinity burial suit

The body is buried in a casket made of organic material or placed directly in dirt wearing a biodegradable suit woven with a mix of mycelia and other micro-organisms. As the body decomposes, fungi help with decomposition, neutralize toxins in the body, and transfer nutrients back to the environment.

Mortality composting
YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

Soil scientists with the Urban Death Project in Western Washington are prototyping the “recomposition” process on human remains after successful trials with livestock remains. The eventual plan is to build a recomposition structure for use on a metropolitan scale.

1. The body is placed inside a vertical chamber layered with woodchips, similar to the way compost piles use leaves as a carbon source.

2. Over several weeks, as the body is decomposed by bacteria, it shifts down the chamber. Other bodies are laid on top as part of a continuous process.

3. Eventually, all that’s left is a nutrient-rich humus ready to nourish new life.

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton
Reef balls

If cremation is still the most cost-effective option, consider this alternative to an urn. Florida-based Eternal Reefs offers to add your ashes to a concrete structure designed to attract aquatic plants and animals when set out on the ocean floor. Eternal Reefs’ partner, the Reef Ball Foundation, sets out artificial reefs in areas of development to encourage estuary restoration and habitat recovery. Besides reef propagation, they are also used as breakwaters.

Conservation burial

The simplest solution might be natural burial grounds, which let you go into the grave without a casket or even embalming. An essential oil solution can be used as an alternative to formaldehyde. Plots are marked by GPS tags rather than headstones to maintain the landscape’s natural appearance. Some cemeteries and brokers facilitate conservation burial by purchasing land for the use of green burials, thereby designating it exclusively for cemetery use in perpetuity.


What Cuba Can Teach Us About Health Care

It was a rare moment in the health care debate. A Trump supporter, Drea Holbert of Kentucky, was explaining her opposition to Republican health care bills to an NPR reporter when she said this: “Hopefully, they can take a look at what Canada is doing, and even Cuba.”

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of YES! Magazine. She writes a bi-weekly column. Find her on Twitter: @sarahvangelder.

Inside the beltway, though, Canadian-style health care is off the table. Single-payer health care is dismissed even though Canadians and citizens of other countries with universal health care are getting higher-quality care at lower costs. One reason it’s off the table is the clout of the health care industry, which spent more than $272 million on the 2016 election cycle, according to Open Secrets, and another $515 million on lobbying.

Yet more Americans — like Holbert — are calling for Canadian-style fixes to our health care system. A recent survey by Pew Research Center, for example, shows that one-third of Americans favor single-payer (a much higher number than supported the Republican health care bills), up 5 percentage points since January.

Holbert, though, recommended we go one step further and consider Cuban-style health care. Setting aside politics for a moment, does Cuba have something to teach us about universal access to medical care?

I went to Cuba in late 2006, where I visited clinics, hospitals, and advanced research institutions. In spite of being a poorer country than the United States, Cuba has a lower infant and child mortality rate and comparable life expectancy. Everyone can see a doctor or, if needed, go to the hospital.

But Cuba’s system doesn’t end with universal access for its citizens. Cuban doctors offer health care around the world. In fact, a group of them told me they were equipped and ready to come to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina but couldn’t because the U.S. government declined permission. Cuban doctors did treat victims of earthquakes in Pakistan and Guatemala, but as they prepared to return home, they realized that they would be leaving locals behind with little access to medical care.

So Cuba began training students from Latin America, Africa, and other medically underserved regions to be doctors. The only condition: that they agree to return to treat patients in their own communities when they graduate.

Cuba has trained even American students.

Here’s how it happened, according to Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, whom I interviewed when we were both in Havana.

Thompson told me he had met with Fidel Castro on an earlier trip and explained that his constituents in Mississippi had health outcomes similar to people living in less-industrialized countries. So Castro offered to train American students. I interviewed several of them, mostly young people of color studying at the Latin American School of Medicine. These students, I learned, were eager to return home after their studies to offer medical care to their own underserved communities.

Why would Cuba go beyond providing universal, low-cost, high-quality health care to its own people to also train thousands of low-income people from across the world to be doctors?

When I asked that question, the response I got over and over was, “We Cubans have big hearts!” Perhaps that is true, but I felt there must be more to the story.

The late Dr. Juan Ceballos, who was then the advisor to the vice minister of public health, filled in the picture. He too told me that Cubans have big hearts, but when I pressed him he said, “All we ask for in return is solidarity.” Those investments in health care missions “are resources that prevent confrontation with other nations. … The solidarity with Cuba has restrained aggressions of all kinds.”

Cuba’s spending on medical services and training, then, is an investment in its national security. By winning the friendship of countries like Pakistan and Guatemala, they increase their security without ships, airplanes, or bombs. They invest in training people to heal, not to kill, all over the world.

A fully socialized system like Cuba’s may not be in the cards for the United States. Still, Drea Holbert has a point. We have the resources to make sure everyone in our country has health care if we invest our vast wealth wisely.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of YES! Magazine. She writes a bi-weekly column. Find her on Twitter: @sarahvangelder.