Pop-up schools teach about truth and system change. 80% of the world getting by on 5% of its wealth.

Modeled after the Civil Rights Era’s citizenship and freedom schools, the new Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership teaches skills for the Trump Era.

Activism School.jpg

More than 200 people crammed into a meeting room at Smith College to listen to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum speak at the May 4 opening ceremony of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership. The new school provides in-person training opportunities in activism in five cities throughout Western Massachusetts.

“We need the Sojourner Truth School to lift us out of the deep funk that many of us have felt since the election of 2016,” said Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and author of several bestselling books on the psychology of racism. “Ordinary people can get this started and make an impact.”

Since the Trump election, there has been an outpouring of interest in engaging with politics and social movements—and a hunger to learn new skills. The Truth School is one of a number of schools cropping up recently to train people to become activists in social change movements.

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian co-founded the school and said the idea was to create a “school that teaches movement building skills—a ‘pop-up’ school that teaches useful skills to those seeking to resist Trump’s authoritarianism.” She said she hopes the school will “help us cling to democracy during the Trump years.”

The notion for the school emerged after Ayvazian attended a pop-up artist’s event in an empty store space. “I imagined an impermanent school, popping up around the valley.”

Ayvazian said that the initial response to her idea was overwhelmingly positive.  People have offered free spaces for the school, she said, and now the Truth School is popping up in artist studios, library halls, and community meeting rooms at religious congregations.

History of Activism Schools

The post-election activist surge has included thousands who have thrown themselves into electoral politics. These activists are working to elect insurgent candidates such as Rob Quist in Montana and Jon Ossoff in Georgia and around the country. And organizations that train people to enter political races for the first time have seen a spike in interest. More than 7,000 women have signed up for VoteRunLead’s “Run as You Are” course that teaches women how to run for office. According to The Cut, the She Should Run online incubator program for women candidates reported a huge increase in women registering for the program: from dozens to hundreds of women signing up in a normal month before the election to more than 8,100 in the three months since the election.

One new school that formed in the wake of the Trump inauguration—called the Resistance School—drew more than 175,000 participants during its initial four-part training series  in April, according to the school. The program, designed by undergraduate students at Harvard University, drew parallels to the founding of Dumbledore’s Army from the Harry Potter series as they rallied to resist the evil Lord Voldemort.

This outpouring of energy is reminiscent of similar activist schools that formed during the Civil Rights movement. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Citizenship Schools were established in a number of states throughout the south to overcome barriers to voter registration. And in 1964, more than 40 Freedom Schools popped up throughout Mississippi to provide youth with basic education courses in literacy and math, for example, but also in Black history, civic engagement, and leadership.

According to an article by Marian Wright Edelman, “… volunteers were trained to teach in these [Freedom Schools] held in church basements, on back porches, in parks, and even under trees.” Edelman worked as an attorney in 1964 in Mississippi. “I remember visiting a Freedom School under a tall old oak tree in Greenwood, Mississippi, and hearing Pete Seeger sing,” she wrote.

Edelman went on to found the Children’s Defense Fund and establish a Freedom School initiative to provide after-school and summer programs to enhance reading skills. Several Freedom Schools, inspired by these earlier efforts, operate today in cities such as Chicago and Detroit, and an Akwesasne Freedom School continues on the Mohawk reservation in upstate New York.

“We haven’t created anything terribly new,” said Ayvazian, reflecting on the history of the Citizenship and Freedom Schools—and other historic progressive and social justice schools like the Midwest Academy and Highlander Center. “We’re just repurposing good, old ideas for our time.

Truth School

At the newly opened Truth School, all space is donated, and the money raised goes to pay trainers so classes can be free and open to anyone. The initial course offerings for May and June include activist skills such as public speaking, writing for mass media, song-leading, and nonviolent direct action. Courses also focus on mobilizing millennials, organizing beyond political silos, working across class divisions, self-care, and inspiration.

Teachers of the courses include government officials and community organizers. Former Massachusetts State Representative Ellen Story, for example, is teaching a class called “Preparing to Run for Office.” And Jo Comerford, the national campaign director for MoveOn.org, is teaching “Organizing 101: The Art of Structuring the Most Effective and Winning Campaign Goals, Strategies, and Tactics.” Other course offerings include: “And Still We Rise: Leadership Forum for Women of Color,” “Leading Songs of Protest and Resistance,” and “Spiritual Resilience and Resistance.”

Ayvazian said anti-racism work is at the center of the Truth School’s theory of change—and part of the work of building a movement. “As a white person committed to dismantling racism, the challenge is to keep paying attention, never losing one’s focus, not turning away,” she said. “Racism is ongoing. The school is built on the notion that we’re going to keep paying attention.”

She hopes others will replicate the model of the Truth School, so they are documenting their planning process and keeping copies of outreach and course materials. “Right now we’re hosting classes and preparing the catalog for September and October,” she said. “But in eight months, some of our board will be ready to go on the road to help other communities start up.”

At the closing of the May 4 kick-off event, Ayvazian said she hopes the Truth School will help build a lasting movement. “There is a danger that we could put everything into the first year of resistance to the Trump disaster and then kind of burnout and go home and act as if things are normal,” Ayvazian said. “The Truth School is needed because we don’t want people to flare up and burn out.”

Good News!

Spartanburg, South Carolina, is undergoing a transformation from a contaminated, low-income area into a livable and vibrant community. In 1998, EPA awarded the community a $20,000 grant. The community has leveraged that into more than $270m in private and public funding through partnerships with more than 140 organizations.

Much of this work has been led by local leader, Harold Mitchell, who started a Spartanburg non-profit organization called the ReGenesis Project. ReGenesis worked with government and industry to clean-up the Arkwright municipal dumpsite, a former fertilizer plant, and six brownfield and Superfund sites.

They demolished 184 substandard public housing units and built more than 500 new, single-family and multi-family units for rental and homeownership. The community has seen the addition of community health centers, job training and employment programs and increased retail development. The community is also launching a 35-acre solar farm, which will create job opportunities and lower electricity bills for local residents.

By Jim Hightower, June 14, 2017 by Creators.com, on Common Dreams, The GOP Will Free You from Having Health Care
“The GOP’s austere view,” writes Hightower, “is that getting treatment for your spouse’s cancer should be like buying a new pair of shoes — a free-market decision by customers who choose their own price point from high-dollar Neiman Marcus to barging-basement Dollar General. And some go barefoot… but, then that’s their choice.” (Photo: Pixabay/flickr/cc)

When I think of freedom, I think of it in positive, aspirational terms — our First Amendment freedoms, for example, or FDR’s “Four freedoms” or the uplifting songs of freedom sung by oppressed people around the globe.

But right-wing, corporate-funded ideologues have fabricated a new negative notion of “freedoms” derived from individual choice. You’re free to be poor, free to be politically powerless or free to be ill and uncared for — it’s all a matter of decisions you freely make in life, and our larger society has no business interfering with your free will.

This is what passes for a philosophical framework behind many of the policies of today’s Republican congressional leaders. For example, they say their plan to eliminate health coverage for millions of Americans and do away with such essential health benefits as maternity care for millions more is just a matter of good ‘ol free-market consumerism. As explained by Jason Chaffetz, a Utah tea party Republican, “Americans have choices. And so maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”

“Right-wing, corporate-funded ideologues have fabricated a new negative notion of ‘freedoms’ derived from individual choice. You’re free to be poor, free to be politically powerless or free to be ill and uncared for — it’s all a matter of decisions you freely make in life, and our larger society has no business interfering with your free will.”

Lest you think that Jason must simply be an oddball jerk, here’s a similar deep insight from the top House Republican, Speaker Paul Ryan: “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.” Yes, apparently, you are as free as you can afford to be. As Vice President Mike Pence recently barked at us, Trumpcare’s you’re-on-your-own philosophy is all about “bringing freedom and individual responsibility back to American health care.”

The GOP’s austere view is that getting treatment for your spouse’s cancer should be like buying a new pair of shoes — a free-market decision by customers who choose their own price point from high-dollar Neiman Marcus to barging-basement Dollar General. And some go barefoot… but, then that’s their choice.

So, that’s what Republicans’ Trumpcare is offering us, this so-called “freedom” from health care. Well, good news, people — at last, congressional Democrats have gotten a clue, grown some spine and are beginning to act like… well, like Democrats!

In particular, a majority of Dems in the U.S. House are responding to the rising public demand that decent health care be treated as a right for everyone, rather than being rationed by profiteering insurance conglomerates. Nearly 6 of 10 Dems in the House have now signed on to Rep. John Conyers’ “Medicare for All” bill, which is being carried in the Senate by Bernie Sanders.  So — Hallelujah, progress!

Yes, but many speed bumps remain on the Democratic Party’s entry ramps onto the moral high road of politics. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, for one. When the leader of House Democrats was asked if the party should make health care for all a major issue in Congress and in the 2018 elections, she replied with a flat “no.” Basically, Pelosi says “the American people” aren’t ready for it — by which she really means that the narrow slice of the public that inhabits her world — health industry executives, lobbyists and big campaign donors — aren’t ready. Meanwhile, a good 60 percent of regular Americans are damned sure ready, telling pollsters flat out that our government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone gets the care they need.

Let’s be blunt: When it comes to the fiery leadership that America’s grassroots people want and need, the Democratic Party establishment is weaker than Canadian hot sauce. When you’ve got 60 percent of your party’s rank-and-file congressional members ready to go on such a basic issue, and 60 percent of the public is also ready to go — it’s time to go! The national party’s “leadership” must get going on health care for all, or the leadership itself must go.

To help push both the party and the issue forward, forward go to www.NationalNursesUnited.org.

Jim HightowerJim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be – consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.
The Long Term Threat is Capitalism

The Long Term Threat is Capitalism, by Conn Hallinan on CommonDreams.org June 2017

In Europe, writes Hallinan, “the lesson for the left would seem to be that moving to the center or the right is a prescription for electoral disaster.” (Photo: Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

The good news out of Europe is that Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front took a beating in the May 7 French presidential election. The bad news is that the program of the winner, Emmanuel Macron, might put Le Pen back in the running six years from now.

Macron pledges to cut 120,000 public jobs, reduce spending by 60 billion Euros, jettison the 35-hour workweek, raise the retirement age, weaken unions’ negotiating strength, and cut corporate taxes. It’s a program that is unlikely to revive the morbid French economy, but it will certainly worsen the plight of jobless youth and seniors — and hand the National Front ammunition for the 2022 election.

“Europe is enmeshed in an economic crisis brought on by the structure of the European Union on one hand and the nature of capitalism on the other.”

Europe is enmeshed in an economic crisis brought on by the structure of the European Union on one hand and the nature of capitalism on the other. That convergence has derailed economies throughout the 27-member trade group, impoverished tens of millions, and helped conjure up racist, right-wing movements that aren’t likely to be deterred by a few election losses.

Obscuring the roots of this crisis is the myth that debt is the result of spendthrift behavior, the economic sluggishness a consequence of high taxes, and rigid labor rules that handcuff businesses and inhibit growth. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fond of saying that countries should behave like a “frugal Swabian house frau.”

Is Merkel’s observation based on a myth or is it allegory? While an allegory is the “figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another,” a myth is “an unproven or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” While the difference may seem pedantic, it’s anything but.

And because myths are particularly hard to dislodge once they become widespread, it’s essential to unpack exactly how the EU got itself in trouble.

The Nested Crises of Capitalism

Part of the problem is capitalism itself, an economic system that generates both enormous productive capacity and economic chaos.

Capitalism is afflicted by two kinds of crisis: cyclical and structural. The cyclical ones — recessions — tend to occur pretty much every 10 ten years. The U.S. and Europe went through recessions in the early 1980s, early 1990s, and the first years of 2000. They are painful and unpleasant but generally over in about 18 months.

Every 40 or 50 years, however, there’s a structural crisis like the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression.

When a structural crisis hits, capitalism re-organizes itself. In the 1930s, the solution was to create a redistributive capitalism that used the power of the state to prime the economic pump and alleviate some of the chaos that accompanies such re-organizations. Unemployment insurance and Social Security took some of the edge off the pain, public works absorbed some of the jobless, and unions got the right to organize and strike.

Capitalism went through another structural crisis at the end of the 1970s, and it is the fallout from that one that currently plagues the EU — and the U.S. Using the 1979-1981 recession as a screen, taxes on corporations and the wealthy were slashed, business and finance de-regulated, public institutions privatized, and unions assaulted. Capitalism also went global.

Globalism did spur enormous growth, but with a deep flaw. With unions weakened — in part by direct attack, in part by the enormous pool of cheap labor now available in the developing world — wages either stagnated or fell in Europe and the U.S., and the gap between rich and poor widened. A 2015 study by Oxfam found that 1 percent of humanity now controls over half the world’s wealth, and the top 20 percent owns 94.5 percent. In short, 80 percent of the world gets by on just 5.5 percent of the world’s wealth.

This isn’t just a problem for the developing and under-developed world. Germany has the biggest economy in the EU, and the fourth largest in the world. In 2000, Germany’s top 20 percent earned 3.5 percent more than the bottom 20 percent. Today that number has increased five times. For the bottom 10 percent, income has actually fallen.

If that Swabian house frau is among that 10 percent, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference how frugal she is — she’s broke.

Bailing Out the Speculators

Globalization generated instability by creating a crisis of accumulation. A few people had lots of money, but far too many had very little, certainly not enough to absorb the output of the global economy. Global capitalism was awash with cash, but where to use it? The answer was financial speculation — especially since many of the restraints and safety measures had been removed through deregulation.

For Europe, most of that speculation went into land. Land prices in Spain and Ireland rose 500 percent from 1999 to 2007. In the case of Ireland, it was almost unreal. Irish real estate loans went from 5 billion Euros in 1999 to 96.2 billion Euros in 2007, or more than half the GDP of the Irish Republic. Over the same period, European household debt increased on the average by 39 percent.

That this was a bubble was obvious, and all bubbles pop sooner or later. This one exploded in the U.S. in late 2007 and quickly spread to Europe.

What’s important to keep in mind is that the EU countries that got in trouble were hardly spendthrifts. Spain, Portugal, and Ireland all had modest debt ratios and budget surpluses at the time of the crisis.

The problem was not prodigal governments but a sudden hike in borrowing rates, which made it expensive to finance government operations. That was coupled with a decision to use taxpayer money to bail out banks that had gotten themselves in trouble speculating on real estate. Essentially, ordinary Portuguese, Spaniards, Greeks, and Irish picked up the debts of banks they had never borrowed anything from.

Irish taxpayers shelled out 30 billion euros to bailout the Irish-Anglo bank, a figure equivalent to the Republic’s tax revenues for an entire year. Since none of these countries had that kind of money on hand, they applied for “bailouts” from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, the so-called “troika.” Some 89 percent of those bailouts went to banks. The day the Greek bailout was announced, French bank shares rose 24 percent.

It was not that EU countries were debt free. But in 2014, the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that between 60 and 70 percent of those debts were due not to overspending, but instead to tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and increases in interest rates. The latter favors creditors and speculators. The committee found that most deficits were the result of “political decisions” that shift the wealth from one class to another.

In the long run, some of that debt will have to be forgiven because it is simply unpayable. The 1952 London Debt Convention that cut Germany’s post-war debt and ignited an economic revival could serve as a template.

“We Cannot Possibly Let an Election Change Anything”

Converging with this crisis of capitalism is the way the EU is structured, although the two are hardly independent of one another. Many of EU’s strictures were specifically designed to favor capital and finance and to marginalize the control that the Union’s 500 million members have over economic matters.

The first problem is that all economic decisions are made by the “troika,” an unelected body that answers to no one. There is a European Parliament, but it has little power or control over finance. The same is true for EU member governments. When former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told German Finance Minister Wolfgang Wolfgang Schauble that his left-wing Syriza Party was elected to resist the austerity policies of the EU, Schuable replied, “We cannot possibly let an election change anything.”

The second problem is that national governments have no control over the value of the euro. Of the EU’s 27 members, 19 of them use the common currency and make up the Eurozone. Germany’s condition for giving up the mark and adopting the euro was that Eurozone members were required to keep budget deficits to no more than 3 percent of national income, and debt levels to no higher than 60 percent of GDP. While that formula works well for Germany’s powerful export model, it doesn’t for a number of other Eurozone economies.

The Euro’s value is set by the European Central Bank, which means that members cannot devalue their currency — a common strategy for dealing with debt, and one near and dear to the U.S. Treasury. As long as it’s smooth sailing, this rule works, but when a financial crisis hits, the common currency and the debt restrictions can mean big trouble for the smaller, less export-centered economies.

When the financial bubble popped in 2008, countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland — and to a certain extent, France — saw their debts soar, with strategies for dealing with it hamstrung by the Eurozone rules.

And that’s when the third problem with the Eurozone kicked in. While there is a common currency, there is no sharing of debt through tax receipts. In a single currency system like the U.S., powerful economies in California and New York pay for bills in poorer places like Mississippi and Louisiana.

Some 44 percent of Louisiana’s state budget is paid for by the federal government, which collects taxes in wealthy states and doles out some of it to regions whose economies are either too small or inefficient to meet their budget needs. If you get into trouble in the Eurozone, on the other hand, you’re on your own.

While the EU has been good for banks and countries like Germany and Austria, it hasn’t been so good for many other members. Applying austerity as a cure for debt doesn’t cure the problem, it just creates a spiral of more debt and yet more austerity. As Rana Foroohar, business columnist for the Financial Times put it, “No nation can grow when the consumer, the corporate sector, and the public sector stop spending.”

Because most of Europe’s center-left parties bought into the austerity-as-a-cure-for-debt formula, they have been devastated at the polls. The Dutch Labor Party was crushed in the last election, the French Socialists got less than 7 percent of the vote, and the Spanish Socialists are barely keeping ahead of the much more left-wing Podemos Party. The Italian Socialist Party has dropped over 15 points in the polls and is now running behind the rather bizarre Five Star Movement. The Greek Socialists are a footnote.

Signs of Life on the Left?

The lesson for the left would seem to be that moving to the center or the right is a prescription for electoral disaster.

True, Macron’s new centrist party, En Marche, did win big in France’s recent legislative elections — but mostly due to the anti-Le Pen vote. His program of austerity, restraints on unions, and corporate tax cuts is not embraced by most French people. Though he appears likely to win a decisive majority, he plans to push the measures through by decree if he doesn’t.

It’s unlikely that such a centrist program will do anything to reduce France’s unemployment rate — 9.6 percent overall and 25 percent among youth aged 18 to 29 — or lift the economy. Labor “reform” and austerity don’t jumpstart economies, and tax cuts have an equally dreary record.

Indeed, as Foroohar points out, there’s not a single example in the last 20 years where tax cuts for businesses or the wealthy stimulated an economy. Indeed, the economic surge in the 1990s happened while tax rates were on the rise.

If the economic situation worsens, or even stays the same, the right will be waiting to pounce with their easy answers to economic crisis: nationalism and racism.

The clock is ticking. Germany will hold elections in September, and it looks as if Italy will also go to the polls this fall. In Spain, the right-wing minority government is looking increasingly fragile and another election is a strong possibility.

Center-left parties are doing well in Portugal, where the Socialists have made common cause with two more leftist parties. In Britain the Labor Party’s sharp break with Blairite centrism upended the Conservative Party, denying it a majority in Parliament. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority of Britons supported Labor’s left-wing platform over the Conservatives’ austerity program.

The Portuguese coalition is demonstrating that there are successful economic models out there to deal with debt and growth that don’t impoverish the many for the benefit of a few. The question is, can the left in Italy, Spain, and Germany put together programs that tap into the seething unrest that globalism’s inequality has generated?

Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. Hallinan is also a columnist for the Berkeley Daily Planet, and an occasional free lance medical policy writer. He is a recipient of a Project Censored “Real News Award.” He formally ran the journalism program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he was also a college provost. He can be reached at: ringoanne@sbcglobal.net