Monday, November 5, 2007

Critical What-iousness?

I was thinking today of the time I met Paolo Freire. It was 1986, and I was a student at UMass-Amherst, majoring in Social Thought and Political Economy. He was in the Pioneer Valley for some conference or another, and someone had asked him to come meet with a group of us STPEC students. He was late and seemed tired when he arrived. There were maybe fifteen of us who waited in a small room with chairs arranged in a circle. There was no presentation or anything. We asked questions and he answered. We were undergraduates, and were for the most part shy and in awe. I only remember one thing. He and his wife, he said, had been watching Wheel of Fortune in their hotel room. In a nation where shows like this were popular entertainment, our struggle would be difficult indeed.

Freire is, of course, the radical Brazilian educator who wrote, most famously, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the classic work on popular education to build what he calls critical consciousness. The notion assumes that we live within a system of domination, and that this extends into the way we think about things and experience the world. To create authentic social change we must first learn to "read the world" in new ways that lead us to a truer appreciation of our social and historical situation.

When our oppression is very stable, he says, we can grow accustomed to its limitations, and, worse, very prone to accepting its various compromises. We can learn to fear freedom, "Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift," he says. "It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion."

Learning to see more clearly, I think, always begins with looking at the various ways in which our own thinking has been colonized by those who dominate our culture and our politics. When we act to "end homelessness," for example, our efforts are steered into charity and away from justice. Our sense of the politically possible has been so narrowly circumscribed as to seem hardly worth bothering about. We accept the paradigms we are given, and their disconnection to broader issues of poverty and inequality.

We accept that homelessness is more about screwed up people than a screwed up system, and even if we do think the system is unjust, we accept that there is little that can be done, so we'd better just focus on fixing the people.

We learn to swallow our anger. To cast our eyes downward and stop seeing. To lose ourselves in diversion.

I had the experience Friday of describing how I saw homelessness to someone who runs a foundation in Seattle. We spoke for an hour.

I told her that the Ten Year Plan framework was about ending visible homelessness while poverty, inequality, and other forms of homelessness continue to grow. I said that the federal government had no intention of altering any of the structures that cause homelessness, but had a keen interest in looking like they cared deeply. I said it was like a fat man running: lots of apparent effort, but little progress.

I said that the focus on "chronic homelessness" was mostly about the changing nature of our cities as islands of wealth and consumption, and that the federal strategy was more about hiding the evidence than anything else. I said that the numbers were being lowered through heightened criminalization of the very poor and increased police harassment of homeless people to drive them out of count areas.

I said that federal funding was a precise calibration of the maximum amount of cooptation for the least amount of money, and that homelessness goes for about $14.8 billion. I pointed out that McKinney-Vento funding for homeless services rose by $70 million from 2002-2006, while from just 2004-2006 HUD funding fell by $3.6 Billion

And she was dubious. After all, a monograph has been created for circulation throughout the foundation community on how to evaluate proposals in terms of their alignment with the ten year plan strategy. Money tends to align with power. Even liberal money.

Hell. It's all liberals who stand behind the local Ten Year Plan anyway, so why wouldn't they?

She kept saying, "Bill Block is a friend of mine. He's a good guy who could be making a lot more than he does. Why would he be a part of this?" And I said, "I like Bill too. And he's doing good things. It isn't all bad. More people will get into housing. King County's plan is better than most. But we're still getting creamed. We're still losing ground."

We need a different paradigm for doing this work. One, perhaps, that hasn't been packaged and sold by the Bush administration to distract faith-based anti-poverty activists from the obvious fact that we're losing ground on housing affordability and income inequality. We need to recognize that apolitical service provision will never get us to a more just economy, and that without this, we're still just managing the problem through higher and higher levels of institution building.

And you don't see any of the institutions complaining.

Part of creating a critical consciousness is understanding how the "common sense" of any given issue gets created. Money and power set the terms. We need to learn how to stand outside of that and insist on other ways of seeing. First for ourselves, and then for others.

8 comments:

Sally K. said...

I saw something that seemed almost sad today. At a meeting of the CEH's Interagency Council, Bill Block--who is indeed nice and smart and hardworking and could be making a lot more money and someday will again--almost pleaded for members to tell him what to say to the Governing Council to get them to understand and act on the information that we are about 300 units short of our yearly quota for units produced to house currently-homeless people. The IAC, being composed of goverment and agency people and providers who all have their own desperate worries which vary from organization to organization, came to no consensus. (One memorable comment was made by a governmental type to the effect that we should be concerned with the lack of housing for those in the upper income ranges also. Groans by some audience members; meeting proceeds.) This shouldn't a matter of either attacking or defending Bill Block; he is no golem, he's a real person with an impossible job. Others, however, don't have that excuse and critical consciousness--should anyone around here be in possession of such, besides Tim and a few other people--needs to be applied to those who don't come with excuses. Anyone with any sense of reality SHOULD be pleading, at this point, or maybe shouting. Maybe Bill Block needs to stop being nice and start shouting.

IAC Member said...

The reason Bill Block pleaded with the IAC is not that the IAC is made up of a bunch of doofs, but because the IAC is confronted with the same problem that confronts anyone in this system, i.e., there's not actual way to build enough units unless big state, federal, or local $s suddenly appear. Whether Bill Block pleads or shouts it doesn't matter, because it will take a huge investment by people in Olympia and Washington who're out of earshot of the CEHKC.

Amused said...

While You Were Blogging....

Obviously asleep in your ego-induced coma, KCHA, Ron Sims, Governor Gregoire, Frank Chopp, and the Church Council of Greater Seattle worked in partnership and have saved the Lora Lake apartments. Just in case you haven't been keeping up with the news. Tell me, Tim, why do you seem to have more personal problems with Sandy Brown than any other individual in your blogosphere? Can't keep up? Wish you were actually effective in creating REAL change? Call your winged monkeys back home, Tim. The Tin Man is actually one of the heroes in the end. Or didn't you read the book?

lora lake watcher said...

Is it true Lora Lake is saved? Where did you hear that? If it's true, hooray!!!!!

Yeah, I've noticed, too, that Tim Harris writes a lot about Sandy Brown. Based on the links on the right column, there are more posts about him than any other individual on this blog. Weird.

Tim Harris said...

What I could do with an army of winged monkeys! "Poppies! That will make them sleeeeep!" I think of myself more as the unseasonal snowstorm, but we all have our metaphors that work best for us.

The most popular current posts at right change daily, and are exactly what they are billed as: The current list of most visited pages on my blog within the last 10,000 page loads. The Sandy Brown flap will one day, probably soon, disappear from the list of top posts, and we will all awake to discover that we're still in Kansas.

Sally K said...

Nope, IAC members are definitely not doofs; just (as I said) people with their own desperate worries, most prominent of which is keeping their programs alive during slumping budgets. And if we don't get this town away from the developers, we're going to all wish we were in Kansas. Or Portland, where they apparently have better sense.

Lora Lake was saved by a huge consortium of organizations and individuals, including advocates who spoke up. It's the poster child for organizational collaboration and citizen pressure. But it was only 162 units.

So.....onward.

Bill said...

On another phase of this blog, re: Tim's comments on Burien, I wrote: "There is a lesson in the whole Burien-Port of Seattle exercise. It is this: It all started from the ground up. An occupation in the middle of the night by members of S.H.A.R.E./W.H.E.E.L. truly notched it up (as Emirel would say). The faith community helped that night with logistics and carrying signs in the dark, but be clear, it was the homeless themselves who carried the day. There was literally no press coverage, but more than 14 police vehicles from various jurisdictions showed up, leaving them to draw lots to see who'd carry the trespassers who they outnumbered (must be them thar Homeland Security funds at work!). So I'd say it is time for Real Change to figuratively, in a coming issue, raise a toast to these folks, do an article, THANK THEM,...... tell the world the story of that midnight raid (well, it was more like 3 a.m.)"

Back to case in point,... LET'S GET CLEAR, PLEASE. Lora Lake was only saved when elected and other leaders decided to FOLLOW the actions of the homeless. That includes our faith community lamentation, and other efforts, which were all to the good. Sure, we all huffed and puffed,and even pretended to break and enter, but I don't recall seeing huffers and puffers out at Lora Lake at 3 a.m. (were you there, for example, writer cautiously posting as "amused?") when the building was being occupied. I was there,out on the street holding a sign inthe dark, humbly and in awe of a kind of courage I felt afraid to exercise, a courage exercised by the homeless. The kind of courage required to end homelessness is not revealed in the comments of "Amused" above nor is it revealed in "wanting to end homelessness." I see who is asleep and when, to include myself, and anyone thinking it is time to crown heroes at the top of the pile is missing-in-action and/or asleep-at-the-wheel. The heroes are beneath the pile. I for one am weary of branding (didn't our agency/etc do wonders on this one!), back-patting, and going home to a warm safe bed every night while more than 8,000 chill outside. Can any of us be proud of that? So, how do we build more units? This isn't rocket science. It just takes the will to do what we keep thinking is off-limits; such as, empty publicly-owned building, angering for-profit developers, making the 1st goal getting everyone a safe warm bed every night, stop fiddling with what will make commuters happy (so they can live in 4000 square feet in the burbs - poor babies) with billions for transit, etcetcetc. There's thousands of ways.It is as plain as day. So when we wonder if it takes more than political will, we go astray. It ONLY takes political will,.... ours and those we elect. Be amused, be confused. It really isn't funny at all.

katia said...

Bill - you really need to start blogging. You brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. Thank you.