Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sitting With the Dhamma Brothers (Part One)

I don’t have a real answer to the violence, but that’s the point of this entry.

I might be way off but something drastically different needs to be done about how Oakland, CA deals with its never-ending violence. Nothing so far has worked so how about getting us engaged in building the answer - starting now. It needs to come from the bottom up. We need a movement of fresh thinkers joining together to form a tribe. Leaving it to our leaders has added little to the outcome. If real change is to happen, it needs to come from a new perspective. We first need this dialogue among ourselves, and then, we need to agree to a process in which we take action – the sooner the better. Let me explain my proposal in four parts.

Background: When the four police officers were killed in Oakland on March 21, 2009, it shocked me and most other people. But just as shocking for many was the support that Lovell Mixon, the man accused of gunning down the officers, was given as a hero's tribute by a small contingent of Oakland residents. This sent a rage of protest and anger from the greater community. I was thinking how separated we were becoming and adding more hardships and hostilities in an already fragile community. We've seen more violence and more soapbox rhetoric of the same brand year after year, decade after decade.

We're frustrated by the lack of progress in bringing more peace and harmony, and then I remembered a book I read that made all the sense to me.

Part One: In 2002, I was introduced to a book entitled, "Sitting In the Fire" by Arnold Mindell. Mindell is an extraordinary man whose perspective on conflict resolution needs to be taken seriously. He was a key engineer in the truce between the Protestants and the Catholics in the decades-long battles that killed thousands in Ireland. He was also involved with bringing peace among the various stakeholders in Compton, CA in the early 90s. Compton was cited as the most violent city in the country amongst those with a population of 75,000 to 99,999. Here's an excerpt from "Sitting In the Fire" describing a meeting Mindell facilitated - when you're reading this, think about how this applies in Oakland:

The atmosphere in the conference room was tense. People from outside Compton were afraid of the area and anger could be felt in the air as the conference opened. There were many heated exchanges and arguments about racism. One argument is particularly relevant to the discussion here. On the second day of the meeting, a white man in his late forties spoke gently but confidently about how he did not like anger. He smiled the whole time he spoke.

A black man in his twenties said quietly he thought the white man did not know what he was talking about. The white man ignored him. The black man then stood up, faced the white speaker and spoke vehemently about not being heard. The white man refused to talk to such an "angry person." The louder the African American man became, the more the white man turned his head and whole body in another direction, repeatedly saying he was open to everyone.

This argument came to a momentary resolution when a white member of our four-person multiracial facilitating team (two were African American, two were white) pointed out that the white man's aloof behavior, his turning away, was based on his assumption that people needed to be calm to debate. A discussion arose about how this apparently trivial assumption was a mainstream expectation born of exclusivity and privilege since calmness is possible only when the issues at hand are not troubling.

Some mainstream participants did not understand.

A black facilitator explained that there was a hidden message in the white man's request for calm: "Follow my prescription for behavior and don't upset me about issues which are not mine."

The black facilitators explained that hidden messages such as this marginalize non-mainstream issues. The dispute seemed resolved for the moment, and the work went on.

Part Two: In 2008, a video documentary entitled "The Dhamma Brothers" was released. It is a story that gives you hope that even under the worst conditions, people are capable of changing for the better when given an honest-to-goodness chance for enlightenment.

"The Dhamma Brothers" (www.dhammabrothers.com) is set in an overcrowded maximum-security prison in Alabama. This particular prison is the end of the line for these hardened criminals. They've been convicted of murders and other notorious crimes. None of them will ever see freedom again.

The importance of this story is how these once hostile prisoners volunteered in an experimental program that must have seemed absurd to the nth degree in such a Christian-domain as the Deep South. And while it was a struggle for its supporters to finally get the program approved after two years, its results proved an important point.

As far-fetched as it might have seemed to most people, these prisoners became practioners of the Buddhist practice of meditation called Vipassana. They were the first of any prison in North America to experiment with this demanding course of deep meditation lasting ten days.

For many of these convicts, it was the first time they had the opportunity to reach deep inside their conscience to reflect upon all that’s happened in their lives. For much of the day, they sat together in silence in a converted gym and allowed their souls to hold an inner conversation. At first, most of the men had to fight the same old inner voices and all the random thoughts that streamed through. But over time, their focus grew sharper and their minds settled into a meaningful dialogue.

Through this meditation, the participants saw how each of them was within control of their own world. No longer did the barbed wires and concrete walls of the prison mean they couldn’t be free. Once realized, they no longer needed to hold a posture of defiance or defense, they were free to be honest and open. What resulted was a life changing process leading to greater self responsibility, compassion for their fellow prisoners, compassion for their victims and their families and a desire to build a movement of social good within the prison. They became advocates of non-violence, and it fortified their desire to educate themselves. For some, they became teachers of Vipassana. For others, they continued to practice their meditation two years after their introduction.

I understand the California prison system is considering this approach.

To be continued

Sitting With the Dhamma Brothers (Part Two)


Part Three: (I've got to give you some background in order to make sense of Part Three.) For many of us in urban communities, gardening is probably one of the most relaxing and personally rewarding hobbies. It is a way to forget the pressures of daily living and of the intensities at work. It cleanses us of the static noises and electrical waves invading our bodies from all of our "devices." What gardening does is it literally grounds us to the earth. It brings us back to a direct connection to our ancestors and our human heritage. There is an absolute oneness you can feel - if you allow it - to the very nature of our commonality and connection to all living things. That oneness is real especially when you feel its nurturing aura as you cultivate the earth, bringing alive the meaning of "Mother Nature," and you realize that we are all her children.

Unfortunately, the human sector of her children has been behaving badly for the last 200 years. I’m sure most of us have never thought of ourselves as the black sheep of the family. So, here's a sobering thought: right now, today, 99.99 percent of all living things that have inhabited the earth are extinct. That's a scientific fact. Humans, on the other hand, have proliferated at an extraordinary rate going from one billion in 1900 to six billion in 2000.

From the DNA evidence, we homo sapiens have been uniting sperms and eggs for 200,000 years. From way back then until 1900, it required THAT length of time to reach a billion. Then in just one hundred years, we increased by five billion! It's projected that in 50 years, we'll add almost four billion. Not that all those extinctions are our fault - we weren't around when that monster meteor collided with the earth and caused a chain reaction killing all the dinosaurs. We; however, have gotten to a level of arrogance which seems to command entitlement to whatever we wish without much considerations of the consequences. This has included a justification for killing, especially of things, animals and people who get in our way. With some people, extinction seems to have become a part of business and a part of life.

The more we've dominated the landscape, the more oblivious we get about all the sand we’ve kicked into our mother's face. But the times, they are a’changin’, because Big Mama hasn’t enjoyed the facelift. It's obvious she been getting more pissed off lately and there is no doubt: an immense tantrum is brewing below the surface. Lately, she's been thinking about scrapping the whole mess and starting all over again. If you're familiar with Thomas Friedman's book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded" you'll take note that some earth scientists are saying the human species may be on the chopping block by 2100. Just think, we'll go from 9 billion to zero in three seconds flat in anthropological terms.

So, how does this all relate to gardening? And for that matter, how does it relate to the killings in Oakland? The short answer: there is a viable solution to our urban crisis if we take our human evolutionary history and incorporate the simple, ancient craft of gardening to replenish the earth and use it to build a new urban industry employing thousands of inner-city workers - but not necessarily in the way you might think. The concept is so simple and so old, it might not make sense to the powers-that-be because it requires a shift in the bureaucratic paradigm especially since it won’t cost much and may not bring much in federal stimulus money. But that’s the exact reason we should do this – high impact, low cost. My experience so far has been that ignoring (aka ignorance) has been easier than trying to understand its impact as a benefit to our communities. We all know that the same old solutions and the same old arguments have produced the same old results, and we’re still in the same old place, not to mention the enormous taxpayer monies that have been wasted. That’s why a groundswell on the Internet needs to happen. Bottoms up!

So, let’s describe this solution: instead of gardening for gardening’s sake, how about if we grow plants that will have a real value to our communities? What if we started growing fruits and vegetables across our urban landscapes and began thinking in terms of “micro-farming” where thousands of open spaces – even just a stair or deck could be utilized as a food producing site? The benefits would be enormous just by this simple act:

  • More people will take control of their foods while saving tons of money.
  • Foods will be grown organically, more nutritiously without harmful pesticides.
  • We’d reduce our carbon emissions because our foodswon’t have to be trucked or shipped an average of 1500 miles.
  • Rather than just decorative trees, plant apple, avocado, peach, pear, orange trees etc. everywhere, thus, removing more CO2 and growing an ample supply of fruits for everyone.
  • Develop simple business models so that low and middle income urban residents can make micro-farming a career or at least a part time job to supplement their incomes.
  • Incentivize partnerships between micro-farmers and local businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, and food kitchens so that overall food costs are reduced and local economies can thrive.
  • Develop an organic micro-farming industry that establishing guidelines, best practices and technical assistance programs as part of a new economic strategy for our cities. (In 2007, for the first time in the world’s history, more than 50 percent of the population lived in urban locations. In 20 more years, that figure will jump to 70 percent; thus, making even more sense to establish urban farms.)

Some of these urban farms are already in existence throughout the country, and no less than Michelle Obama has been instrumental in moving this agenda forward by planting a micro-farm within the White House garden. But could we expand the micro-farm concept for people even if they have no land?

In Africa, Central America, New York City, Newark and Chicago, they’re already doing it using what’s called “self-watering containers.” There are tens of thousands of these growing foods in regions that have been prohibitive for farming previously. There is no need to reconstitute the soil, no need to break apart concrete - all you do is place the container atop just about any surface. Here in Oakland, the initial steps have been taken: land is available through the Parks and Recreation Department and the Oakland Housing Authority. The Oakland school district’s Adult Education program has given us their blessing for training people in micro farming. Now, we just need a growing movement of people to participate and join the rest of the world’s progression into urban farming.

Self-watering containers are a relatively new invention that’s been available to the public since 2001. The best known of these is called EarthBox (www.earthbox.com). There are now other manufacturers with various sizes and shapes. But they all conform to a common principle: the containers hold a reservoir of water in the bottom section and through natural capillary action, move the water upward into the soil. This process is so water efficient, that for most plants, you’ll only use 40 percent of the water in comparison to the traditional in-ground system. The soil should be organic, and it will require only one application of fertilizer for the entire growing season. The process is so simple and the results superior to standard farming, it has revolutionized how we can grow our foods. The containers are nearly 30 inches in length, 14 inches deep and 11 inches tall, but the results can be as much as double your in-ground method.

Now, anyone with about eight hours of sunlight and a deck, a stair, a driveway, can join the self-watering container, micro-farm movement. I want to encourage each of you to have at least one self-watering container and push the movement forward. Proliferate it as a simple solution to food, environment and employment. Let's make it the iPod of urban farming. And that’s the point, anyone can do this; and if motivated, anyone can turn this into a successful business or a social cause which would be the final point of this blog. To be continued

Sitting With the Dhamma Brothers (Conclusion)

The annual violence in Oakland has been cited as the fifth worst in the United States. Whenever I’m traveling and people ask me where I’m from and I say, “Oakland, CA” they do a double-take, like “let me wring out my ears, I swear, I thought you said Oakland.” “Ahh, yeah, I did.” Then there’s a short embarrassing moment of silence and that perplexed look like, “You poor thing; I’m so sorry.”

So it was a wonder that the New York Times, in their Travel section, put an enticing look to Oakland’s image in an article entitled, “36 Hours In Oakland, CA” on May 3, 2009 (yes, I thought I’d put the year in just so you knew I was talking about the present day.) http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/travel/03hours.html

There truly is at least two Oaklands. One is the vibrant multi-cultural, multi-racial city featured in The New York Times of beautiful homes, diverse neighborhoods, breathtaking natural sceneries, and year-round activities enhanced by some of the best weather in the world. The other Oakland is the one that gets all the other coverage; the one that everyone in the country fears. It would be great if the first Oakland was so generous that it could eliminate the second one through its goodness to be inclusive. “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.” But they’re like opposite poles; never talking until something bad happens. Then the first brother either hides or demands protection. The second brother feels left out, hurt and powerless. He cries out, screams for attention to resolve the impasse but no one listens. It’s as if the Berlin Wall had been erected across the center of the city. In fact, there was so much animosity back in the early 1990s that some residents of the Oakland Hills were calling for secession and renaming their community, “Tuscany.”

The Aftermath of the Killings

I began this blog about the death of four Oakland police officers on March 21 of this year and the clear dividing line between those who idolized the alleged killer and those who were shocked by this idolization. It made me think that unless we change the way we treat each other, the fundamental course – no matter what new social program we put up – will change nothing to improve our ability to live as one harmonious community.

The aftermath of the killings brought thousands of strangers together in mourning. We watched the news, we talked for hours, we were angered, we were saddened and found comfort in our friends and family. As I was driving down Highway 80, I witnessed a long, united procession of police vehicles from neighboring cities heading into Oakland for the funeral. We paid respect to the fallen officers and on a higher level, we as a society marked this tragedy as an horrific episode for humanity. The next day, we went back to business as usual.

We understand that this sort of violence must stop but we’re so caught up in our own struggles of daily living and our own routines that thinking about how we resolve the problem is too taxing and eventually, we take the easier route, expect our public officials to take care of it and then forget - until the next tragedy occurs. Then we go through the same cycle of mourning, the same contemplation and then back to our routines.


Befriending Your Enemies

Will we ever come to the point of having a true solution? Conventional wisdom would say “impossible” but I would contend that answer is based on the mire we’ve confined ourselves in. It’s been like this for so long, we’re in a hypnotic state. Could we, though, work towards a solution that proceeds like a ladder, reaching its ultimate goal one step at a time? There are solutions across the country and across the globe where the stem of violence has been cut at its base. My friend, Paul Lamb, sent me this quote from one of the great peacemakers the world has known, Mahatma Gandhi:

“It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”

We need a strategy based on Gandhi’s words. First of all, one of the major divides in our communities is economic. You already know that the poor are losing their survival options in these economic times. We know that unemployment is highest in the inner cities. Public services have been cut drastically. We know that common businesses such as financial institutions, retail stores and professional services do not reside in low income neighborhoods - making it even harder on those who live there.

For generations, those who lived in the poor parts of town have been crying out for equal opportunities, and when their voices weren’t being heard, they shouted in anger and sometimes, those shouts were the sounds of gunshots. The mainstream couldn’t understand and instead of looking at the root causes, we saw only the anger, the violence and the threat of escalation into the affluent neighborhoods. We gave money to social services to make the problem go away but the problem was beyond their capacity. We hired more cops, built more prisons and did everything to protect the mainstream. In the meantime, the poor still had no money, no education, no health care and no one listening. They were despised and the mainstream looked upon the poor as a group that needed to be controlled and confined.

The Inclusive Three Step

Sometimes, the best solutions have nothing to do with money. It starts with open communications without tradition. It starts as a three-step process: 1. Giving voice to the voiceless, 2. Listening and understanding, and 3.Working on an inclusive solution. It’s a dialogue that runs two ways. It is not a top down approach born from some ideology of Robert’s Rules of Order. It is giving true equality to each of our citizens with respect for their contributions to the dialogue.

Too often the mainstream has dictated how the discussion will take place. Their conventional wisdom states there is a protocol and a specific manner in which the dialogue must take place. If the discussion alters itself from the accepted form, we stop listening. It is time we accepted that no matter how many hours we spent in learning to conduct ourselves in this “accepted” form of dialogue, the people we need to include in the talks do not necessarily subscribe to the methods we’re accustomed to. What we all need to do is accept the fact that other ways of communication exist and that they are as legitimate as ours.

What’s the solution? Let me propose two at the risk of sounding like a na├»ve dreamer. How about an annual conference on racism and civil rights in Oakland? Yeah, I know, no one wants a conference on that anymore – too negative, irrelevant, too old school. Maybe we should call it the “Open Dialogue” or the “Conventional Defiance” Conference. It should be a venue where the voiceless and the powerless are given an opportunity to speak whether in calm or anger, whether in an “acceptable” communication style or otherwise. We pride ourselves on being such a richly diverse city, yet few of us actually mix together on a regular and personal basis. If you’re white, you stick with whites, if you’re black, ditto, Asian, same thing. If you’ve got money, you stick with the money crowd. If you’re poor, you hang with the poor. We just aren’t comfortable outside of our circle whether class-based, culturally-based, racially-based or age-based.

Building the Groundswell for Real Solutions

In the beginning, only the voiceless and progressive people will attend our conference. There would have to be dedicated advocates, some strong in organizing skills, others in technology skills and some who just plain see the need for change. They would have to create a groundswell from the bottom up to force the issue; to make the conference an annual city event when all the parties will finally show up and become a voice for the solution rather than avoiding the discomforts of confrontation. This has to be a conference where real action takes places; where communities can look forward to real results coming out of the conference; where they can say, “We’re going to have a little farm on Elm St. and we’re going to learn how to grow our own vegetables for ourselves, and it’s going to be our new business.”

A friend of mine reminded me with that in the corporate world, much of the management decision-making is filled with posturing, ego-boosting and usually takes too damn long. In fact, many solutions are created when two workers most qualified to resolve the issue, meet in the hallway for five minutes and solve the problem. That’s what this conference needs to emulate; a venue without the politicians or the bureaucrats to goo-up the process.

Unless we truly start talking with each other, especially those of us who disagree; allow for the anger to come out; allow for our fears to reveal themselves; allow for us to cry in our sadness and confess to our failures, we can’t have an honest dialogue or a true solution. Slowly, more and more will come out of their comfort zones and participate because the groundswell will progress to where the annual conference will become the norm.

Using the Silent Treatment

For my second solution, let me put a twist to this discussion with a small step that may seem out of whack to some of you. It is based on the concepts in “Sitting In the Fire,” Urban ROOTS and if you’ve had a chance to check out the “Dhamma Brothers” video documentary, you know that effective communication and social resolve doesn’t always require words:

What if a group of people volunteered to create a micro farm in a low-income Oakland neighborhood using the EarthBox self-watering containers for the intent described in Part Three? What if these people were volunteers who didn’t know each other and to promote teamwork, everyone dressed the same. We would train them to work together on creating a micro-farm with EarthBoxes but told them they couldn’t speak to each other. Everything would have to be communicated through physical action. What if at the start of each day, we would begin with a one-hour silent group meditation asking everyone to clear their minds so that they could leave the outside world behind and focus on their own inner thoughts. We would then partner the volunteers into three-person teams which would be responsible for taking care of a set of EarthBoxes. At the end of the day, we would again reserve one hour to mediate as a group. What if we did this for two straight weeks – 14 straight days for 10 hours per day?

What if one group was a dozen concerned cops and the other group was a dozen ex-cons just out of prison? What if another group was a dozen successful business people and the other was unemployed poor residents? Would they all reach levels of cooperation as they worked together as teams? Would they learn to work together without the strains of status and rank? Could they use their meditation time to reflect upon each day’s journey and feel the brotherhood and sisterhood of having worked in unison towards a common goal? Would they go away from this experience with greater compassion when they all reveal their true identities on the final day? Would there be a willingness to continue the dialogue in the future using a neutral setting and dressing the same? Could fundamental change happen?

In my head, these are legitimate solutions for social change because they are truly inclusive. And an inclusive society means people don’t feel left out, don’t feel ignored and feel they have a voice. It means that over time, we equalize our educational system so that what we provide in the Oakland Hills is no different from what’s offered in the flatlands. It means that our economic conditions improve because more skilled people work in a growing number of new companies enjoying a well educated workforce. It means entrepreneurs feel confident in calling Oakland their home. It means we learn to talk with each other and work on resolutions from the bottom up. It means the shouting lessens because people are being heard. We begin to feel like a real diverse community respectful of our different styles and cherishing what each of us brings. The New York Times does another story about Oakland without starting off with "Despite Oakland's reputation as a crime capital ...."