Sunday, April 3, 2011
The Example of Peng Her: Let's Find Ways to Support More Highly-Qualified Minority Candidates for Local Office
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming April 5th election, Madison citizens will once again find ourselves being represented by a Common Council that does not reflect our community's racial and cultural diversity. However, that is something we could do something about, if we set our minds to it, and dare to think in different ways about a political process that simply doesn’t represent a level playing field for candidates of color.
For the second time in recent years, I’ve been proud to support a run for office by my good friend Peng Her, current candidate for alder for Dist. 18 on Madison’s northside. Peng epitomizes the talented and dedicated kind of representation this area needs and deserves. And yet, I’ve often sensed a certain kind of double standard being applied to him.
Peng is known to many as a longtime advocate for social justice, a well known Hmong community leader, and former owner of the popular restaurant Taste of Asia. As a Hmong leader, Peng and his wife Mai Zong Vue are extraordinary bridge builders within the Hmong community, acting as cultural translators for Hmong elders, while helping a younger generation maintain links to their cultural heritage, despite the pressures to assimilate. Peng has shown the members of his community that it’s possible to remain true to Hmong culture and traditions, while also embracing a role in the community-at-large.
Peng brings those same bridge-building skills to the larger arena of his work. His diplomatic people-friendly skills and ability to think outside of traditional boxes have allowed him to lead on city and county committees, on neighborhood groups, and on a variety of coalitions and organizational boards. He uses these same skills to open dialogues between community organizers and business people, for example, across the lines that often divide us. As in all situations, Peng is using is own personal experience to relate to others. In recent community forums, he’s taken his experience with his restaurant as a means of explaining his empathy for the many obstacles that small businesses and other entrepreneurs are facing today.
Twenty years ago this election cycle, my good friend, African-American community leader Steve Braunginn, was running for county board in an uphill battle against the incumbent. As someone who had seen the powerful things that had happened locally when openly lesbian and gay candidates had been thrust into office in historic elections, I knew that my place was beside Steve, helping this highly-qualified man of conscience to win office as the first African-American representative on the Dane County Board. Steve fell just short of victory that year, and at the after-party, I presented him with a photograph I’d taken in the Himalayas two years before, of an unclimbed mountain.
For two years, that photo stood on top of Steve’s TV set, where he could see it each and every day. Two years later, Steve ran for office again, in a district with a negligible minority population. His key to victory was that his friends and neighbors saw something special in Steve. They weren’t voting for the African-American candidate out of liberal guilt or some other pretense—they were voting for the candidate whose life experience and vision were best suited for their future representative. Despite the odds, Steve climbed the mountain, adding a powerful voice for the voiceless on the county board.
Polling or conventional wisdom would have likely perpetuated the message that Steve’s candidacy was an unlikely one. And, ironically, one of the arguments made against Peng as he recently sought the endorsement of the local Democratic Party was the intangible and bias-prone perception that he was somehow not “a viable candidate.”
I can only reflect that had another historic candidate for office, Tammy Baldwin, been judged by the same standards in 1992 when she ran for state assembly, few would have foreseen her rise from underdog to victory in that pivotal election, perhaps some of their skepticism grounded in the notion that no open lesbian had ever achieved that high of an office. Had this perception of “lack of viability” been allowed to stand, we would have been denied an amazing public servant, and countless young people would have been deprived of a powerful role model. (The same can be said of Russ Feingold, who was pulling only about 10 percent in the polls two weeks before his history-making victory in the September 1992 Democratic primary, which was followed by his come-from-behind victory that November.)
Peng Her is not running as “the Hmong candidate” in his aldermanic race. But his election to the city council would nonetheless have a significant impact on the lives of young Hmong people growing up in Madison, empowering them to know that they, too, could one day achieve elected office.
As was the case with Steve and Tammy, political pundits seem to have forgotten that it’s the people who ultimately decide who wins office, not the pollsters. And when given the choice of electing highly-respected and qualified truth speakers who also happen to be leaders of minority communities, voters will embrace those candidacies, defying both conventional wisdom and the countless obstacles of a far-from-level political playing field. Right now, however, local voters seldom have the choice of electing substantial numbers of people of color to local office, because we have few systems in place to support such candidacies.
My support for Peng is based on my experience seeing first hand how Peng has helped diverse community members from all walks of life work together in common cause, and is reflective of his extraordinary efforts to personally reach out to District 18 residents in recent weeks. I am also proud to have played some role in contributing to the election of almost three dozen open lesbian, gay, and bisexual candidates for office over the years, including Tammy’s election as the nation’s first open lesbian in Congress. Madison and Dane County lead the nation in this realm.
And yet, in the realm of electing qualified people of color to office, we lag far behind. In the years ahead, for the sake of our community, and for all of the children who would draw inspiration from the election of a great community leader like Peng, let’s work together to build support structures that lead to a more culturally and racially diverse group of local elected officials. Our future depends on it.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Capital Times editor John Nichols has written a beautiful tribute to longtime Madison civil rights activist Lea Zeldin, who died this past Wednesday at the age of 80, subtitled “Proud to be a Radical….” He wrote, in part:
Zeldin didn't mind upsetting the establishment, and eventually even some of the powerbrokers in town came to recognize that she was right.
As tensions rose in Wisconsin cities in the late 1960s -- with open housing marches in Milwaukee and a takeover of the state Capitol by welfare-rights activists -- Zeldin's recognition of the reality that it was not just the south that had issues proved prescient.
Zeldin, the founder of Madison's Dr. Martin Luther King Free Community Dinners -- a perfect merging of her political and culinary concerns -- has died at age 80, after suffering a stroke last week....
Zeldin was with the activists. And she never thought the title "radical" was an insult.
While I don’t doubt that Lea had no trouble embracing the term, “radical,” I hope no one misinterprets this to mean that she was a person who lived on the fringes and was therefore somehow out of touch with reality. Because, instead, as a woman of great integrity and authenticity, she was almost always exactly where she needed to be.
I’ll remember fondly breaking bread together at a local media reform event at an intergenerational table of activists at the Dardanelles (see photo), where her sharp wit and incisive story-telling held us all enthralled. Part of the conversation revolved around local political leaders whom she believed had recently been taking the “politically pragmatic” path, rather than simply holding to their principles and doing the right thing. In a world where political spin and unprincipled compromise have too often taken hold, Lea had little patience for such an approach.
April 4th marks the 41st anniversary of Dr. King’s highly stirring and controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church. Lea lived out Dr. King’s messages—all of them--each and every day. Like Dr. King, Lea could be warmly supportive and an inspiring catalyst for the involvement of others in the cause of civil rights. But also like Dr. King, she challenged us to move beyond our comfort zones, asking us to end our self-imposed silences to speak out and take action against injustice—to simply do the right thing.
John Nichols's essay taught me a lot about Lea that I’d never known before, but one theme also stands out for me: the powerful things that happen when we break bread together, as we build relationships and share authentically with each other those things that really matter.
Monday, March 23, 2009
You Don't Want to Miss the Powerful Play, "The Birds That Are Your Hands" at Broom Street (through April 19th)
Against the backdrop of occupied borderlands torn asunder, "the birds that are your hands: how to start a fire under siege" explores disparate yet overlapping tales of tyranny and resistance from Israel/Palestine to the U.S/Mexico border. From stony hills laden with olive trees to the blurry haze of a line in the sand among saguaros; from the bullet riddled corridors of an ancient holy city to a chain gang in a Southwestern U.S. metropolis, a tangled collage of stories unfurl drawing attention to the hands of those enclosed by borders, those making the crossing, and those who capitalize on the construction of walls: wielders of stones, bakers of bread, upholders of state. Shepherds emerge alongside Goliaths' patrol, lovers find themselves to be terrorists, and Ingrid thinks we should all just lay down our arms and play violins. The politically-charged, provocative performance interrogates coercive population control, racialized state violence, and militarized borders. It does this while foregrounding the voices and stories of those deemed "collateral." The birds that are your hands: how to start a fire under siege coos, screeches, and pleads with the dangerous urgency of a world on fire.
For more information, please follow this link . Playing at Broom Street Theater, through April 19th, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Photo Credit: John Quinlan
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Update on Concerns about Citizen Input and City Government: While My Own Committee Appointment May be Imminent, Larger Questions Remain
and becoming more and more like State Government at its worst?
Thanks to the dozens of my Madison neighbors who responded with affirmations via email and in person to my last blog posting, expressing concerns about the politicization of the committee appointment process in Madison. In fact, much of the last two weeks has been filled by chance meetings in both the real and online worlds with new friends and old who have hugged and high-fived me, patted me on the back for "speaking truth to power," given me irreverent "you go, gurl…." encouragements, and otherwise let me know that what happened to me and my lost appointment application is an experience that's widely shared, and that something needs to change.
A couple of days after my posting, I received a phone call from Mayoral aide Ray Harmon, who apologized on behalf of the mayor and himself—my application had somehow been inadvertently lost in the shuffle. To make a long story short—things are now back on track, and I may receive my requested appointment to the Equal Opportunities Commission as soon as April. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. And I'll keep you posted.
BASED ON FEEDBACK I'M RECEIVING, GENERAL CONCERNS ABOUT THE PROCESS REMAIN
Still, most of the general concerns I'd expressed in my last posting are still ongoing. I know systems. I know how to make my voice heard. So it's one thing if I'm able to get the mayor's attention. But it's apparent from everything I've heard in the last couple of weeks that dozens and dozens of Madison citizens feel that their applications for public service on city committees and commissions have either fallen through the cracks—or they've come to the conclusion that they mayor is not looking favorably on them because he disagrees with something that they've said or done. Regardless, they aren't getting their calls returned, good people are feeling excluded, and their faith in their local government has been shaken.
Something's still broken here. And, equally distressing, the folks in the mayor's office and many members of the Common Council don't seem to believe that anything needs fixing.
As often happens with political incumbents when the fact of incumbency broadens one's potential base of support, the mayor is actively seeking out the political middle ground, and members of the business community who might not have originally supported him, as a means of further building his political base. So he doesn't seem to be afraid of losing a few of his original supporters he's now defined as being on the political fringes. In this sense, he might very well see himself as acting very much like Barack Obama in reaching out across the walls that divide us. But there's an important difference here--at least in theory, President Obama is embracing a philosophy that allows him to reach out to those with whom he disagrees on the right with a strategy that attempts to make sure that he doesn't leave any of his core supporters behind. Mayor Dave, on the other hand, seems to think it's in his best interests now to use his consolidated power in a way that pushes away and seeks to diminish the influence of anyone who disagrees with him.
In addition to his questionable use of committee appointments in consolidating his political power, he's also attempting to discredit these same people, under the guise of "political courage," by trying to paint them as hopelessly out of touch with the public that lives beyond the liberal isthmus. This ignores the fact that Madison's progressive traditions transcend being exclusively rooted in any one part of town.
In fact, my gut tells me that this "political courage," is actually "political shortsightedness," and may be a huge miscalculation for a number of different reasons. For one thing, it's generally wrong-headed to blacklist and disrespect potential allies with whom you share a broader philosophy, because you've disagreed with them on a handful of issues. For another, it ignores changing political realities on a larger scale that tilt toward public support of a broader, more communitarian social justice agenda on the part of all government of the kind we haven't seen since the New Deal. Discrediting community organizers and other politically active folks in Progressive Dane and other independents to the left of the Democratic Party at this point in history rings more true with the politics of Sarah Palin than it does with the new era represented by an Obama presidency. But, time will tell.
DEBUNKING THE NOTION THAT THE MADISON ELECTORATE IS CHANGING: BECOMING LESS "IDEALISTIC" AND MORE "PRAGMATIC" REGARDING THEIR EXPECTATIONS OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT
This week's Capital Times contains a long analysis piece on the current fortunes of Progressive Dane, Local leftist political party no longer at height of its influence.
However, the piece didn't impress me much, despite the clear attempt of writer Kristin Czubkowski to be thorough and even-handed. It just doesn't go far enough. Like much of journalism these days, it's lacking in the ability to rise above the false dichotomies and oversimplifications that accompany partisan posturing to analyze the many levels of what's happening out in the real world of the community, and to relate it to developments in the nation and the world today, as well. Instead, the article creates yet another opportunity for political theater that entertains rather than political reporting that informs and explains--and the resulting article was mostly another combative verbal ping-pong game between leftist PD'ers and their moderate Democratic Party counterparts. The substantive issues raised by PD leaders and other interviewees were, in large part, discounted. And the article missed the opportunity to seek an intelligent analysis from people outside of that polarized matrix of Left vs. Really Left conflict, where most Madisonians exist. It also presented a superficial and relatively static snapshot of current political realities, in declaring PD successes or failures in recent elections as the sole litmus test of where Madisonians may or may not have moved on the political spectrum. But, as we learned all too well in the political primary season just passed, anyone who relies on a small set of snapshots to portray changing political realities is missing the fact that nothing remains static in politics, particularly at a time of major political change nationwide. And surface developments often obscure the deeper and more profound political currents that lie beneath the surface.
The article also reinforces tired old clichés that bolster the specious argument that Madisonians are suddenly only concerned with street repair and garbage pickup, something that when you step back to look at the bigger picture, seems to be more than a bit counterintuitive. Yes, we're all concerned with the basic delivery of services, but our collective vision is not nearly that narrow. Madison is Madison, in part, because we look beyond just those important basic concerns to work on underlying social problems, and we often come up with some amazing "out of the box" solutions along the way because of this ability to look deeper. And we do so through a lens of concern about the challenges facing people both throughout our own community, and also worldwide. Instead of constantly deriding a Common Council that has often weighed in on issues of international human rights and city programs that support the building of relationships with people worldwide, it's time for us to claim this is a community strength. That's not pie in the sky idealism, that's the kind of practical, holistic approach to the increasingly interconnected world we live in that's becoming the new paradigm.
WHY WOULD THE WORLD BE TRANSFORMING, WHILE MADISON RETROGRESSES?
This article mirrors another recent Cap-Times article that maintained that Madisonians are becoming less politically involved, by comparing the number of people who engaged in political marches in the 1960s with those who march today. That article ignored the fact that political organizing is morphing, and that people are more likely and able to connect with others working for social change online and in smaller social settings than they are in continuing the time-worn traditions of mass marches. Anyone who spent any amount of time on campus and in the community during the presidential campaign season could not deny that thousands of local people have become involved in the political life of this nation in ways they never have been before. But protest marches are no longer the measure of citizen action. The times have changed, and so have the ways that we measure citizen involvement.
So I just don't buy the notion that Madison is abandoning its progressive traditions, for more "down-to-earth" concerns. It's a condescending and short-sighted assertion, and an excuse for political mediocrity being circulated among too many of the current crop of local elected officials. At a time when the nation and the world are transforming, why would thousands of politically concerned Madisonians retrogress to ways of narrow thinking that take them away from expectations of an open, inclusive, citizen-responsive local government? People who cynically believe otherwise do so at their own political peril. If you're really out there in the community hearing from people from every walk of life in every part of town, the last thing you'd conclude is that Madisonians don't care about political reform and social justice anymore. But too many people in the ivory castles of our government have become cut off from that reality.
In fact, one cogent piece of analysis in that Cap-Times article is that many politically-active Madisonians have been investing their energy in the national movement for change sweeping the country, which has left them little time or energy to pay attention to the local political scene.
And one has to remember that a hallmark of the national movement that swept Barack Obama and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress into office was a desire for a reformed system that once again allowed people a voice in their government.
Put these last two paragraphs together, and you don't come to the conclusion that Madisonians have traded in decades of commitment to neighborhood-based, citizen-accountable, open and inclusive government for some sort of wishy-washy political pragmatism. It means that most of us have been off working on the bigger picture for a while, but still have the same basic beliefs and principles—something that's been even more reinforced by the hope that's come with recent changes at the national level. And now that we're beginning to have the time and energy again, when we look at what seems to be happening to local government, and the end-runs around democratic process, it concerns us deeply.
And it bears repeating—politicians ignore those concerns at their own peril. This city is filled with highly qualified, public-minded individuals with an interest in public service who would love to see what they could do as mayor. If that happens, the concerns I'm raising about the way that Mayor Cieslewicz has been wielding power will rise very much to the fore. If current trends continue, in 2011, the mayor may very likely face a backlash from the citizenry producing the same situation as faced his predecessor—a multi-candidate mayoral primary packed with serious contenders, one which he might not survive.
But, all of that could change, if the current mayoral administration reframed the concerns I've raised here, and began to see increased citizen involvement an opportunity, not a threat. It would also involve putting time and resources into making the increased involvement of a diverse citizenry real. And there's still time for that to happen.
TWO STORIES THAT STOOD OUT
Two people's stories stand out for me among those I've heard from since I wrote that original blog entry.
One is my friend Mike McCabe, executive director of the government watchdog group, the Wisconsin Democracy campaign—a nationally-respected expert in the field of clean government and government reform. Mike responded as follows to an inquiry on his Facebook page:
Saw your post, John. Good points. In particular, when you talk about making the process of city appointments more transparent, more focused on qualifications and less subject to political consideration, you hit the nail on the head.
By the way, I've had direct experience with the committee appointment process. When the city established the Blue Ribbon Committee on Clean Elections, I submitted an application. Never heard back. Learned that I wasn't selected from the newspaper. Guess I wasn't qualified.
By far the most touching—and deeply disturbing--response I've had came from a close friend who has devoted her life to government service as a means of achieving social justice. Once a part of the state of Wisconsin's bureaucracy, this friend now works for the city.
State government, in her experience, was a great disappointment, because decisions were generally made completely separate from any sort of public input. This meant that money, power and privilege often determined whose voice was heard. Of course, this sort of thinking still continues in legislative and executive branches that made no movement toward reform in the wake of the Jensen and Chvala scandals—abuses of power rooted in the increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few-- to pass any sort of significant campaign or government reforms.
For my friend, becoming a part of city government, and having the opportunity to work with citizen committees and commissions, was like a breath of fresh air. It gave her hope again in the ability of government to be a reflection of the will of the people. And so it has been deeply disturbing for her to see and hear evidence that the city might be moving away from the proud traditions of its past, as reflected by the recent actions of the current administration and many members of the Common Council.
A FINAL IRONY – QUALIFIED PEOPLE ARE BEING EXCLUDED AT A TIME WHEN CITY OFFICIALS SAY THEY'RE HAVING TROUBLE FINDING QUALIFIED PEOPLE TO SERVE
Of all of the things I've heard these past couple of weeks from citizens and officialdom alike, it's this central irony that still keeps coming back to haunt me.
People want to serve, who are "being lost in the shuffle," or feel they're being excluded because they aren't willing to give up their own independent judgment by agreeing to vote in lockstep with the mayor. From the perspective of city government, however, there just aren't enough people applying--especially enough people from enough diverse constituencies and backgrounds to mirror the full diversity of the city. SEEKING SOLUTIONS Despite my own pointed criticisms, I'm still hoping that mayor will see it in both his own political self-interest--and the best interests of the city--to help lead us to a better place. If not, I think that there's enough of a rumbling out there for a grassroots effort to take hold. That train will likely leave the station with or without the mayor and other members of the political establishment. But it would be so much better if we could all leave the station together.
Despite my own pointed criticisms, I'm still hoping that mayor will see it in both his own political self-interest--and the best interests of the city--to help lead us to a better place. If not, I think that there's enough of a rumbling out there for a grassroots effort to take hold. That train will likely leave the station with or without the mayor and other members of the political establishment. But it would be so much better if we could all leave the station together.
Continuing on the current path is likely to continue to erode citizen trust in government. And that's not good for anyone. So the first question that people have been bringing to me is: what can we do to change things?
The obvious first step is to de-politicize the committee appointment process, and to make it more inclusive and transparent.
Current applicants must be engaged with. If the problem is that they're applying for positions for which they may not be best suited, then someone needs to tell them that, and offer them other options for service. If the problem then still remains that there are not enough people coming forward who are willing to serve, then we need to take proactive steps to recruit, train and support citizens willing to come forth to offer their life experience and expertise in service to the city.
A simple place to start would involve some good public process—a series of community-wide forums or hearings where current and past appointed officials could offer their testimonials about the value of public service, with new processes in place to ensure that citizens' applications will be duly considered and acted upon. It could also start by establishing a hotline or otherwise making sure that citizen inquiries about the committee appointment process are being answered. Active partnerships between the mayor's office, common council members, city departments, pro-democracy nonprofits, and civic groups could also make a difference.
WE SIMPLY DESERVE BETTER
Working together, there's much to be accomplished. But ignoring the problem becomes a vicious cycle that will only engender more disconnection and distrust between Madison residents and their government. Building on our proud traditions, we can turn this situation around.
Monday, January 26, 2009
My Concerns About the Appointment Process for City Of Madison Committees: Part of a Waning Commitment to Citizen Input?
Recently, a Madison citizen named Bob wrote to a community listserve about his attempt to volunteer his services on a city committee:
"I submitted an application for one of these committees listed many months ago. A position was open then and even again later on. Now it is open yet again -- a third time. However, I never heard a word about my application the first time other than that it was received. I certainly don't feel inclined to resubmit an application each time an opening is announced particularly when I got no response the first time. I have plenty else to do. Perhaps responses to requests for committee membership would be better received if a decision from the city one way or the other were issued to those who take the time to complete an application. I know for myself that since I got no response that I am not inclined to submit an application again. I have a long history of community service in places where I've lived, but if people aren't interested in what I have to offer, I can certainly find other things to do. I'm never short on things to do. I wish the city the best in filling these positions. I think they are important which is why I applied the first time. Feel welcome to reactivate my original application." Other citizens on various neighborhood-based listserves then responded with their own stories, resonant with Bob's experience.
I, too, have faced a wall of silence that's lasted now for several months in regards to my inquiries about the mayoral committee appointment process. Mayor Cieslewicz is someone for whom I placed my own reputation on the line to support in a highly-contested four way race when he first ran for office back in 2003 (he proudly displayed my endorsement blurb in the third most prominent place on his website), and he was someone I have called a friend for over 20 years. But, given the current climate around committee appointments, in which it appears there has been a spirit of retribution for anyone has publicly disagreed with the mayor, I guess I must have done something to place me outside of the circle of consideration.
I have only the following theories:
I have continued to be an outspoken advocate for minority voices in our community in the years that have followed, and suggested a compromise in the debate over the creation of the Department of Civil Rights that resulted in a delay to the process, while the mayor undid some of the damage that was done by moving ahead with this initiative without fully involving leaders in Madison's ethnic minority community in the process. In that case, the mayor apologized for his actions, and thanked me for helping to move a log-jammed process forward, but I might have ruffled feathers, nonetheless.
I did not endorse the mayor's re-election bid two years ago, but that was, in part, because I moderated a civil rights-related debate on my radio show and needed to remain neutral. The concerns I mention below about the mayor's attitudes toward public process have popped up briefly from time to time on my radio show, but that's part of my job--to raise difficult questions about the conduct of our elected officials--and I do that across the board.
Beyond that, I have never been what you'd call a "harsh critic" of the mayor, so I'm not sure exactly where I might have fallen out of favor. Maybe I'm just simply too liberal for him, maybe I'm friends with the wrong people, maybe I'm not considered enough of a loyalist for any one of these reasons. (One analysis says that the mayor is pushing away people he believes to be on the political fringes as a means of positioning himself more firmly in the political mainstream.) But if that's the case, then we've entered the truly dangerous territory of de facto blacklisting of people based on their beliefs and associations--or equally distressing, the mayor's office is rewarding its supporters with the kind of patronage that would do Chicago politics proud.
Mayor Dave has a great deal going for him, and I don't mean to diminish the breadth of his accomplishments on matters of substance. Maybe it's because he is genuinely such a nice guy, that he feels he needs to prove he's a force to be reckoned with in order to do his job properly. But political style is equally important in the context of leadership, and using the appointment process to discourage dissent is simply inherently undemocratic, and all too reminiscent of recent discredited practices at the State Capitol. Political considerations go hand-in-hand with being an elected official, and it's only natural for an official to reward the work of those who have been loyal to him--but only up to a certain point, and not at the exclusion of appointing people based on their experience and qualifications.
The almost Nixonian implications of the current climate--in which perceived "enemies" of the mayor, who might disagree with him on but a single issue are forced off committees, or excluded from consideration--may provide short-term political capital, but doesn't help the mayor in the longer term. Instead of coming across as strong and in-charge, though, he's coming across as paranoid and out-of-touch. In fact, these actions are wreaking havoc on his credibility, and causing profound doubts in many of us who supported him in previous elections. Many of us supported him precisely because we believed that he was incapable of using such strong-arm tactics, that it wasn't part of his basic make-up.
It's hard to know, but as someone who's been involved in electoral politics at all levels for all of my adult life, my gut tells me that something is awry here, and lines are being crossed that simply shouldn't be crossed. It pains me to even ask these questions, but hearing that others are going through the same thing, causes me to put some of my long-felt concerns into words.
Ironically, in my own case, I could be wrong. It's possible that my personal concerns about being on the outs with the mayor are totally offbase, and that my application has somehow just gotten lost in the shuffle. But we still come back to the matter of countless calls and emails going unanswered--something else that numerous citizens reported had greatly frustrated them, in the recent email flurry--something that was rarely the case with the mayor's predecessors. Maybe there's a "reasonable explanation" for each one of those other people who have felt left out of the process, too. But the fact that a climate has been created in which there is a growing perception that the mayor is engaging in inappropriate and unethical behavior in the area of committee appointments says in and of itself that something is happening here that shouldn't go unanswered. This behavior may or may not be illegal, strictly speaking, under existing law and city procedure, but it's doing damage to both the reputation of city government and the mayor himself, nonetheless. If a nice guy like Mayor Dave can be seen as engaging in this kind of abuse of power, maybe it's time for some kind of systemic change in the process by which committee appointments are determined.
I mention several times below that the behaviors I'm describing are atypical, and that this is not the Dave Cieslewicz I know. If I'm right about that, he'll respond in a way that directly addresses these concerns, instead of attacking the messenger. If not, I'm hoping that he'll at least think twice before doing this to anyone else again. With all of that in mind, here's my analysis:
MY OWN CONCERNS ABOUT THE CITY COMMITTEE APPOINTMENT PROCESS
AND THE OVERALL STATE OF PUBLIC PROCESS AT THE CITY OF MADISON TODAY
By John Quinlan
An Open Letter to the Community:
I want to echo Bob's concerns, and those of countless other citizens, as stated above. At a time when there's growing disinterest in people running for local office because of all of the financial hurdles and the increasing incivility of local politics, the last thing we need is for people offering their valuable time and expertise for appointed positions to have those offers fall into a black hole. Like Bob, I've been frustrated that my own application for public service on a city commission has so far been ignored, and that my repeated attempts to get a response from the mayor's office on its status have met with a prolonged silence.
Perception that the Mayor is Playing Politics with these Appointments
To be up front about this: though I'd love to be presented with evidence to the contrary, my own worst fear is that the mayor is playing politics with these appointments in a way that concentrates his power and lessens the input of these citizen-based committees. Some of that has been done by allowing city committee and commission vacancies to go unfilled for a period of months and even years, and some of it has been in the choices he's made in filling appointments, which have tended to have been made independent of any consultation with the leadership of those bodies.
Whether the issue is transit or equal opportunities, my anecdotal experience is that the mayor is appointing people he feels comfortable with, not necessarily people who are have the requisite experience in the necessary areas. Inherently, the people being excluded are those who may have independent thoughts and alternative ways of doing things that the mayor might not otherwise have considered. The mayor cannot be an expert on all things, and the diverse opinions and experiences of Madison's appointed officials should not constitute a threat, but an opportunity for him.
Greater Concerns about a Growing Disregard for Public Process
In the bigger picture, this seems to manifest as doing an end-run around public process and then justifying it in the language of political courage or principled leadership. That meant that instead of allowing a public debate around the future of the city's decades-long investment in public transit, the mayor attempted to short-circuit the process by drawing a line in the sand. Very few of us love process for the sake of process. But Madisonians jealously guard their direct role in democracy, and ultimately resent anyone seen as quashing that role, no matter what their margin of victory in the last election.
The mayor and his staff need to understand that they're no longer working in the context of a legislative office, which runs considerably differently from the Madison mayor's office. The mayor must constantly and actively seek out community input, and must rely on a "kitchen cabinet" of community advisers who will give him the straight dope about what's happening out in the community, even if that makes his job more complicated in the short term. I witnessed the transition to the new administration, and saw them overwhelmed by what seemed like the chaos of a community seeking the new mayor's ear. And yet, I think that their tendency was not to find a way to effectively channel the cacophony of community voices, but to institute mechanisms that often shut them out. The business of a legislative office and the fulfillment of a legislator's responsibility to her/his continuents can be managed in the context of an appointment calendar and a set of discreet tasks as a means of following up on constituent concerns. But by contrast, the mayor's office only serves people effectively if the community is seen as a river that flows through the very heart of the office, as messy and inconvenient as that reality may be. Tending to the myriad needs and divergent viewpoints represented by the presence of that river requires a way of doing things that involves allowing that river to flow. Trying to dam it up, and prevent the flow of public input into the process from occurring, may make the flow of that river of democracy seem to slow and become more manageable and controllable in the short-term. But ultimately, the water behind the dam will rise, and an even more chaotic and swiftly flowing stream will take its place.
Two Cases in Point: The Debate Over Public Transit, and a Growing Disregard for Minority Community Views and the MEOC
In the case of transit issues, public process has proceeded along a somewhat convoluted route, but has still had a discernible impact, despite the mayor's efforts to dam up the process of public input. But life might have been considerably easier for the mayor, the transit commission, and the rest of us had the mayor allowed the process of public input to flow naturally in the first place.
In the case of equal opportunity issues, the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission (in its new home as part of the Dept. of Civil Rights) has historically been a place where minority community leaders have felt that they had direct input into the city's decision-making process, with the recognition that virtually all city decisions have implications for our community's commitment to social justice and equal rights. However, in countless recent decisions, the mayor and the council have done an end-run around with the commission, refusing to recognize that issues like community policing are inextricably connected to issues of racial justice, for example.
Appropriating the Language of "Political Courage" in Justifying the "End-Runs" Arounds Public Process
The justification for doing an "end-run" around public process or committee input is usually one of manufactured urgency or a view of the citizenry that assumes the worst of their ability to come together in the interest of the common good. In the case of the transit debate, strong-armed Common Council members who opted to disregard the transit commission's role in setting fares were declared by the mayor as showing great "political courage." And that sounds suspiciously like double-speak to me.
Just as "national security" was the battle cry for the short-circuiting of democratic freedoms post-9/11, so the current economic crisis is becoming an excuse to circumvent the democratic process in the name of allowing our local government officials to make the necessary difficult decisions on our behalf, supposedly in our best interests, without regard for public input. Every year or so, some politician raises the specter of long-ago public debates that stretched on for decades as a means of circumventing public process in the here and now. It's a tired old, out of context argument that fails to see the many accomplishments that have come from Madison's traditions of citizen and neighborhood involvement. My worst fear is that the current mayor and Common Council are once again viewing public participation as inevitably leading to division and discord, delaying the specific budget cutback decisions they view as inevitable. And so they're inclined to cut corners.
What they don't seem to understand is that making these decisions on the basis of across-the-board cutbacks or other bureaucratic shortcut devices may not work in the midst of today's economic crisis.
Those decisions need to be made, wherever possible, in a way that recognizes the increasing need for supportive services for those in extreme economic need that accompanies economic downturn. And so, at least in the short-term, resources from one area may need to be taken disproportionately from another to better utilize scarce resources in another. Some city programs may require an increase in city funding, at least in the short-term.
Public Input and Consensus Important in Desperate Economic Times Now More Than Ever: Giving Citizens the Benefit of the Doubt that We'll Do the Right Thing
Those are difficult choices, and, yes, debates will ensue that sometimes pit people with competing interests against each other. But side-by-side with this reality is a long history of Madison's citizens being willing to come together and make the tough choices when our leaders present those choices to us in a way that brings us together in common cause. Because if these choices are made without citizen input, and community consensus, the dam breaks. And if you think that a contentious and difficult Common Council meeting involving a full public debate is problematic, you haven't seen anything yet.
Because if people in Madison feel that the mayor and the Council are taking action without their full investment in those decisions, then the torrent of public opinion will really make itself known, first and foremost in protest of the people's anger at having been excluded from the process. But if that's allowed to happen, it means that citizens and government are being distracted from our primary joint responsibility--making difficult decisions together with an eye to the common good.
My Personal Experience: Enthusiastic Support Followed by A Deafening Silence -- Does This Mean I did something to get on the wrong side of the mayor?
In my own case, I applied last year for membership on Madison's Equal Opportunities Commission. At the time, there were at least seven openings. I don't mean to be immodest, but there was little question of my qualifications, and other EOC commission members have told me that they greeted my application with great enthusiasm. I have a long history of working in a leadership position on issues of civil rights, and without listing my entire resume here, that decision was affirmed in the city's decision last January to name me as the recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award.
I've known and worked closely with Dave Cieslewicz for over 20 years, and was one of his early supporters, despite the crowded and highly qualified field of candidates who ran against him as he sought his first term. The core reason for my support was, based on my past experience with him, that I saw him as a highly collaborative, inclusive, and effective community leader. He clearly valued my endorsement of him, placing it third in prominence on his campaign web page. He's affirmed for me in appearances on my radio show that he appreciates my past leadership in the area of civil rights. And when I've seen him out in the community, he's assured me twice in recent months that he's supportive of my appointment to the MEOC.
So when late last year, I discovered that virtually all of the MEOC appointments had been filled, apparently without any consideration of my application, I wondered what might have happened. Several of my equal opportunity colleagues speculated that perhaps I'd somehow stepped on the mayor's toes, through my past advocacy, or some statement I might have made recently on my radio show. This notion was reinforced recently in viewing the mayor's response to Ald. Brenda Konkel, a former mayoral ally. Brenda has been an outspoken advocate for many of the public process questions I've raised above, and the mayor's response has been to view her as disloyal, instead of taking those concerns seriously. He's unashamedly taken the almost unprecedented step of attempting to recruit a candidate to run against her--an area in which he was notably unsuccessful, it's important to point out. He and his allies on the council have gone even further in attempting to marginalize Brenda by using red-baiting like tactics that declare her to be a dangerously out-of-touch liberal, rather than engaging with her in an informed debate about the issues.
MAKING THE PROCESS OF CITY APPOINTMENTS MORE TRANSPARENT, MORE FOCUSED ON QUALIFICATIONS, AND LESS SUBJECT TO POLITICAL CONSIDERATION
Coming back to my resonance with Bob's initial concern--I really don't know what the process is as the mayor makes decisions about city appointments. I'm not sure that anyone does, and that's kind of disturbing in itself. One would argue that it would make great sense for that process to become considerably more transparent. Are appointments considered in the order in which they were filed? Is there a process by which the mayor eliminates someone for consideration, or does someone's application remain in active consideration moving forward? Is there any kind of formal or informal advisory role that the leadership of an existing committee can play in this process? Are some committees and commissions seen as troublemakers, and does the mayor make a point of appointing only loyalists to fill vacant slots as a result? Regardless of the reality, has this mayor inadvertantly created that perception?
Or is the filling of vacant appointed committee and commission spots not seen as a priority, and there's a huge backlog needing attention?
Or, to give him the benefit of the doubt... is the mayor doing fine, in making difficult choices, and in appointing the best people possible for available openings? And he sees the appointment process as tantamount to a hiring process in which the applicant's confidentiality is honored--the effect being that he's turning people down, but doesn't consider it appropriate to publicly announce his rationale, out of respect for the privacy and dignity of the applicants. If that's the case, I supposed that's fine, although I'm not sure if the public interest is best served by such an approach.
But even if this is his rationale, it's doesn't necessarily excuse the silent treatment meeting those of us who want to know where we're at in the process. Many of us who have the most to offer the city as appointed officials must juggle our service to the city with many other personal and community responsibilities. So it's important for us to know if such an appointment is or isn't imminent.
Of all of the questions I'm asking, this one is probably the most germane: Does the committee appointment process need to be reformed so that all of the power no longer lies with only one elected official, including the option of giving the Common Council leadership a larger role in the process?
Could Someone At Least Return Our Calls?
In my own case, I've traveled directly to the mayor's office to ask about my status, beginning three months ago, but have yet to receive the courtesy of a returned phone call or email. Mayoral aide Ray Harmon (who, ironically, presented me with the 2008 King award because the mayor was out of the country at the time) has been identified to me as the staff person whose responsibilities include the Madison Equal Opportunity Commission, so a request for a clarification of my status was made through him. I repeated this request last Friday at the front desk of the mayor's office. Maybe that returned phone call will finally happen later today, or at least later in the week. But I'm not holding my breath.
I'm sorry to go into such a detail. The last thing I want to do is to appear to be asking for special treatment, or to come across as a prima donna. Nor do I particularly want to burn my bridges with a mayor whom I've gone out of my way in the past to support. It bears repeating: my experience in all of this is not consistent with the Dave Cieslewicz I think I know.
I'm incredulous that I can't even get someone to return my phone calls, because I've never been treated this way before--in fact, nothing like this has ever happened to me in my interactions with four other mayors going back more than 30 years, including Mayor Cieslewicz's immediate predecessors, Sue Bauman and Paul Soglin, whose offices I often consulted with on an almost daily basis. It may not be intentional, but that's not particularly encouraging, either.
Who Else is This Happening To? Please Weigh In With Your Own Experiences
However, underlying my motivation in going public with this is my bigger concern that, if it's happening me, given my longtime history with this mayor, is it happening to countless other people who've simply become disillusioned and pulled back from the opportunity for public service?
One recent stream of speculation is that the mayor has been playing political harddball lately because he believes he's being perceived as too much of a nice guy to be effective in his job.
And so perhaps he's decided to recycle the advice of his longtime adversary, the editorial page writers of the WI State Journal, as a means of bringing them over to his side. They wrote, in a 2003 editorial that followed Mayor Dave's first election:
Dave Cieslewicz's easygoing manner will be his greatest strength - and it also could be his political undoing. We didn't believe Cieslewicz was the best-qualified candidate for mayor, but he should be able to grow into the job pretty quickly. He just needs to stop listening to people for awhile.
That advice might seem calculated to create mischief. But in fact, we worry that Cieslewicz is fatally attracted to consensus and cooperation in a job that calls for an evenhanded yet often unrelenting personality, someone unafraid to use the power of the office appropriately.
Hoping That My Concerns Are Heard as Coming from a Friend, and Don't Engender Defensiveness
And so my last concern is that a guy who I vouched for when he first ran for office might be holding political grudges as a means of showing he's a tough guy, or as a means of quashing dissent. That's just about as far from the Dave Cieslewicz I thought I knew as I can imagine. I really want to give him the benefit of the doubt here. The Dave Cieslewicz I once knew would take this criticism from a friend and see it as a wake-up call for taking a new look at how members of his political base are viewing the way he's been doing business. Because the measure of loyalty, isn't sucking up to someone and telling them only what they want to hear. It's sharing with someone your concerns, and hoping that they'll have enough confidence in themselves to know that being open to constructive criticism is one of the true marks of mature leadership. It's the same advice I'd offer to any friend for whom I have much respect and high expectations.
Regardless, though, Bob and I and countless other committed citizens deserve a mayoral appointment process that's fair and transparent. In my experience, frustration with the status quo runs deep, and this isn't a state of affairs that's good for anyone.
If I don't hear back from the mayor's office, I'll make one last attempt before withdrawing my application for public service. (I'm told that there may, indeed, be further openings on the commission beginning in April.) I'm putting this out there publicly to encourage anyone else who feels they may have been overlooked to come forward, so we can address this concern together.
Thanks for considering this.
John L. Quinlan
Applicant for the position of Commissioner on the Equal Opportunities Commission, City of Madison Dept. of Civil Rights
*The following organizational affiliations and examples of community leadership are for identification purposes, and an attempt to bring home my point, that something else is afoot here other than a lack of qualifications.
Communications and Cultural Competency Consultant
Current president United Nations Association-USA, Dane County
Host of "Forward Forum" public affairs radio show
Recent past member of the Northside Planning Council
Coordinating Committee Member, Midwest Social Forum
Member, Downtown Madison Rotary
Executive Committee Member, past Vice Chair, of Communities United
Past Co-Chair, Madison Study Circles on Race (mayoral appointment)
Past President, Wisconsin Community Fund
Past Director, of OutReach (Madison's LGBT Community Center)
Past Co-Chair, Coalition for a United Dane County
Past Co-Chair, Gay and Lesbian Visibility Alliance
Past Trustee, ACLU of Wisconsin
Past President, Fair Housing Council of Dane County
Past Chair, Madison Equal Opportunities Commission Housing Committee
Past Membership Chair, 2nd CD Rainbow Coalition
Recipient of HUD/ERD WI Fair Housing Advocate of the Year (1987)
Man of the Year, from OutReach (1993)
Community Shares of WI Sally Sunde Social Justice Award (2002)
City of Madison ML King, Jr. Humanitarian Award (2008)
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Some thoughts on the Inaugural Week that Was, in the context of a letter to my cousin Martha, who traveled from her home in New Jersey with her 16-year-old son Alex to the inaugural....
Hi Martha --
Thanks so much for calling on Thursday after your trip to DC. It was great to hear the infectious enthusiasm in your voice after attending the inaugural. So glad that you and Alex could be there. I've had a number of friends sending me their reports all week (some even acting as "reporters" for my radio show), and it sounds as if it was a magical place to be.
MEMORIES OF INAUGURAL DAY 1993
My friend, Tammy Baldwin (now our Congresswoman) and I drove out together to DC for the inaugural in 1993. I'd just finished working as media director for the Clinton-Gore campaign in northern Wisconsin, included coordinating visits by both Al and Hillary. Tammy had just been the first openly gay person elected to our state legislature. So it was an exciting time. One of the highlights was attending the first-ever Triangle Ball, where Melissa Etheridge made her public "coming out" debut by rushing onto the stage and surprising kd lang with a full mouth kiss! That whole weekend was a lot of fun, but nothing compared to the energy and sheer numbers of people celebrating in the street at the Obama inaugural. And the hard part, in retrospect, about the '93 event was that just a few short weeks later, so much was in disarray. The gays in the military debate had deteriorated into "don't ask, don't tell," and Hillary's fight for universal health care was in shambles, thanks in large part, to the well-coordinated efforts of the far right wing.
THINGS ARE DIFFERENT WITH THE TRANSITION TO OBAMA;
HOPES THAT THE DISAPPOINTMENTS OF EARLY CLINTON DAYS WON'T BE REPEATED
This time, though, I think that things are going to be different. I certainly don't agree with everything that Obama is doing, and all of his appointments. However, I do think that there's an opportunity for some real change to occur. That's in part because Obama himself is not only a persuasive leader, but also a master strategist. And another major difference this year is that the people who supported him haven't gone into hiding post-election, thanks to the new media and all of the young people newly-energized by countless organizations. As we've resolved at several rallies in Madison this week, including one last night featuring Madison-based John Nichols of the Nation Magazine, we're going to keep this administration and this Congress accountable in ways we've never been able to do before. What a wonderful time to live through! And, I hope, what an antidote to the poisonous residue left us by the Bush administration--an antidote that will result in a world left in much better shape to Alex, Rebecca, Sol, Marchel, Carl and Cole and their generation. At least now, there's hope.
EXPERIENCING THE INAUGURAL IN THE COMPANY OF A CIVIL RIGHTS HEROINE
While I wish I could have been there in Washington on Tuesday, I had a very meaningful experience back here in Madison watching the inauguration with a friend who was visiting from Alabama, an African-American woman who is a veteran of the civil rights movement. I think I've probably told you about the oral history project and cultural exchange I've been working on, based out of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, and the University of Wisconsin. The woman who spearheads those efforts, Joanne Bland, was a veteran of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March back in 1965 at the age of 11--having already been arrested 13 times for voting rights-related civil disobedience. Joanne first met Obama several years ago at one of the jubilees marking an anniversary of the march. That night, he snuck out of his black tie dinner engagement, and spent three hours with Joanne touring her museum, hungry for tales of the movement that laid the foundation for his historic run for the presidency. Later, Joanne and Barack marched together across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and a photo of Joanne appeared on the front page of the New York Times. (Inserted below)
As I'm sure you know, the legacy of racism didn't disappear from Selma overnight following the passage of the voting rights act back in 1965. Despite the fact that 65 per cent of Selma is black, it took another 35 years to elect the first black mayor. Voter suppression efforts still run rampant there and in neighboring communities like Marion. Joanne has remained an unwavering activist over the years, continuing to fight for equal rights while also working to capture the unsung history of hundreds of veterans of the movement whose stories have never been told. She's seen a lot, and lived through a lot of the worst nightmares associated with what so many others have experienced as the American dream. Despite those realities, though, she is one of the most optimistic and inspirational people I've met--and she transmits that optimism to today's young people in her many speaking engagements to middle and high schools all across the country.
And yet, it's been hard for her--hard to see the discrepancy between where we should be as a country, and where we actually are.... For many years now, she's found it impossible, for example, to say the Pledge of Allegiance when she visits schools, because it's words too often ring hollow for her.
And that's why it was so incredibly powerful to hear her singing along in beautiful harmony as the national anthem was played during the inaugural ceremony. All three of us present in her hotel room watching CNN were already in tears, and there was something that moved us each to sing out this song with a tender passion that none of us had ever experienced before. Joanne had shared earlier with us the same thing that many of my African-American friends have shared in the days since the election--that she knew, like Dr. King, that this day would eventually come, but that she never expected for it to come in her lifetime. As the ceremony ended, she told us that this was the first time in 30 years that she'd been able to sing this song again, this time with pride.
After watching the ceremony with Joanne, we headed over to the student union for a reception I'd arranged for students and faculty who've worked with Joanne over the years as interns and volunteers in Selma. Each person had been deeply touched by that experience, some had even been moved to change the course of their studies, and their careers. For another couple of hours, the dozen or so of us gathered together around the conference table poured forth our long-held frustrations about the state of race relations nationally and in Madison.... and then, even the most cynical among us could not help but also share how the words and images streaming forth from Washington had opened us up again to holding out hope for our most deeply held dreams about a nation and a world transformed.
REFLECTIONS ON SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (see also post below)
That night, on an impulse, I decided to attend the film, "Slumdog Millionaire," at the new Sundance Theater complex that Robert Redford recently brought to town. It's been almost 20 years since Mom and I spent six weeks together traveling India, but the recent nonstop coverage of the attacks in Mumbai had recently rekindled many memories of our time there. The movie takes place, in large part, in the labyrynthine alleyways connecting the thousands of "hutments" housing the poorest of the poor--flimsy structures made from cardboard and corrugated metal that barely pass for shelter in the slums that ring Mumbai. It's the first thing you see after traveling out from the airport. Because we had friends who'd lived in India for many years, we'd seen many aspects of India life that other tourists are shielded from, but we never ventured forth into these hutments. And so over the years, my image of life in these squalid neighborhoods was of people lurking in the shadows in some kind of subhuman twilight zone, people with whom I had little in common, so basic was their need to do everything they could merely to survive. But the film portrayed, instead, a very different reality.
"Slumdog Millionaire" moved me in ways that no other film had done for many years. There's no question that it evokes in startling terms the harshness of life in the hutments. However, through its depictions of the lives of three young protaganists, who it follows from their pre-teens to young adulthood, it erased in me the fallacy that these were people living out some kind of alien, sub-human existence. These young people were extremely likable, and amazingly full of a love of life despite every poverty-based challenge they encountered. Amidst its gritty realism, it's a work of fiction, of course, that often reads like a fairy tale, complete with its requisite happy ending and uplifting but highly improbable Bollywood production number. But there was an authenticity present in it that touched me deeply.
LONGING FOR A TIME WHEN WE STOP "DE-HUMANIZING" PEOPLE
In these past several years, as I've gone deeper in my examination of the black civil rights movement, and continued to work as a gay rights activist, I've been struck again and again how the forces that perpetuate bigotry and prejudice do so by de-humanizing the people around whom they try to generate a climate of anger and fear.
And it's also struck me that human inter-relationship is the great countering force that allows us to overcome these fears, and see each other as human beings with common hopes and dreams.
The images that streamed forth on Tuesday of the crowds gathered for the inaugural symbolized for me the kinds of meetings of diverse peoples that ultimately help to move us forward. Time and again, the TV screens reflected back new friendships across virtually all of the lines that have divided us, wrought from the shared experience of that day.
What a day it was.... So many challenges lie ahead. But it really does seem as if a new day has dawned.
Again, so sorry not to have returned your call right away... I've just been elected president of our local United Nations Association, and my evenings have been tied up with some associated events.... I'll be shifting gears in a moment to get ready for my radio show, (www.forwardforum.net), which now airs at 2pm local time, but will try to give you a call later in the day.
Didn't expect this to turn into a major journal entry, but hearing the energy in your voice on Thursday, knew that you'd understand. Looking forward to hearing more about your own experiences in DC. Also hoping to have the chance to hear from Alex about his trip to England with Tim.... Much love sent your way. Best to Bob, Alex and Rebecca, and your dad and Tim.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
"Slumdog Millionaire" Movie Offers Humanizing Insights Into Lives of those Living in Extreme Poverty
Immediately upon leaving the Mumbai airport as you travel south into the city, you’re struck by the endless sight of the flimsy metal and cardboard shacks known as “hutments,” one built haphazardly upon another, for as far as the eye can see. In the harsh cold of a northern climate like my native Wisconsin, a person could scarcely survive for a day in these chaotic creations that barely pass for housing, but here they at least offer partial protection from the heat of the mid-day sun and the powerful force of the monsoon rain.
India is nothing if not a land of extremes, of beautiful edifices dating back to antiquity alongside the thriving new highrises being claimed as home by an ever-burgeoning middle class. But amidst the beauty and prosperity, live people who are barely making it. For many visiting Westerners, the sights and sounds and smells associated with extreme poverty are more of a culture shock than they can tolerate, and more than a few have been known to venture but a mile or two down the road from the airport before doing an about face and getting on the next plane home.
Traveling to India in 1989 with my mom, sharing in her powerful voyage of rediscovery of a place that had greatly influenced her as a young adult, (following college, she was a teacher/acting principal for four years in the early 1950s at a Methodist Church-supported north Indian high school), I wasn’t about to turn back. It felt as if I’d been well-prepared for culture shock by our hosts—family friends Fred and Naomi, who had called this city their home for the previous 40 years—who helped me find ways to put these experiences of poverty into some sort of socio-political context. Yet, as I reflect back on that trip now, I realize that part of the way that I was coping with the presence of the extremity of the poverty I was seeing was to compartmentalize it, seeing those around me as somehow inevitably tied to a kind of subhuman existence that had little in common with my own life.
I could hardly imagine anyone living any kind of meaningful existence in such an environment that involved anything other than basic bare bones survival. As the miles passed on that memorable ride into the city, and the hutments were replaced by slightly more substantial housing composed of cinder block and metal-reinforced-concrete, all I could imagine of life in the hutments was people stooping low and cowering in an eternal state of emptiness, deprivation, illiteracy and a chronic ignorance of the world beyond.
Such an existence could only hold people living lives on the very edge of human experience, I thought, and surely was nothing with which I could identify.
But earlier this week, upon viewing the remarkable film “Slumdog Millionaire,” twenty years after my Indian experience, I realized that I’d simply been wrong.
That’s the power of this amazing film—the ability to humanize people who live in what seems at first to be an unimaginably inhumane place. As the film opens, a mischievous group of children are playing stick ball on the tarmac at the Mumbai airport–one of the few open areas in this densely populated hut city where they can actually find the room in which to play. When police arrive to chase them away, two of the children delightedly lead the cops on a seeming never-ending pursuit through the labyrinth of narrow corridors in the surprisingly vibrant and colorful community that exists between the hutments.
Dodging the hapless officers by virtue of their small size and agility—and innate knowledge of a random urban landscape that would seem impossible to navigate with any certainty—the two brothers’ merry chase is only ended by a chance encounter with their loving mother, who offers her pledge to the harried officer that the punishment awaiting the boys at her hands is one far worse than anything he could dole out.
But the boys’ mother is not a one-dimensional harsh disciplinarian whose behavior is but a reflection of the harsh conditions of these urban slums. Instead, she is clearly a woman whose love for her sons, and her hopes that they might one day obtain a better life are expressed with an amazing intensity. When the boys lose their mother to cruel circumstances that are so traumatic as to burn themselves into their dreams, it’s also clear that the sense of family obligation, self-worth, and dogged perseverance she instilled in them are a tangible undying source of love and strength that allows them to survive intact despite the many horrors that still lie ahead.
The film revolves around these two brothers, and a third orphaned young girl whom they permit into their makeshift shelter one rainy night. Together, they constitute the Three Musketeers—a title they adopted during the brief earlier period in their lives when their mother made sure that they were able to attend school. As harsh as the setting may be, the personalities of these three young children shine through in ways that makes it clear that they’re kids not all that different from kids living anywhere. In fact, their child-like ingenuity, and sense of adventure makes them at times seem more like an Eastern Hemisphere, modern-day version of Huck and Tom and Becky, than it does three children living out an alien existence. As an audience member, you can’t help but care about these kids, can’t help but empathize with what they’re facing, can’t help but hope against hope that they find an escape from this awful existence.
One other aspect of their journey was extremely illuminating for me, in filling in a gap about an aspect of the Indian urban scene I’d known about, but found too horrible to contemplate. As our cab proceeded into the city on that first day in Mumbai (then known as Bombay), we were deluged at every stop light by gangs of children, rapping their knuckles against our windows, begging for handouts. Our hosts explained that any impulse we had at generosity would have been misplaced.
These kids were part of gangs organized by pimp-like shadowy figures who had kidnapped many of them, and forced them into this life. Many of the kids were severely crippled, in this case a politically incorrect, but frighteningly accurate term. These slaveowner/pimps, we learned, would actually blind the children, and decapitate their limbs as a means of making the children into objects of pity that would much more effectively attract tourist dollars. I realized now in retrospect, that our hosts’ admonitions to ignore the begging children and not to give them money, was not only a matter of doing the right thing by refusing to support this slave trade—it also allowed me a way to avoid thinking about the horror that each child had likely been forced to endure. Through the eyes of the children, in scenes filmed at a rural camp where kidnapped children are brought into the trade, this film conveys this awful reality in a way that more than once caused me to turn away from the screen.
And that’s where I’d better stop, before giving away other important plot points and unexpected twists in this intense drama, which takes you on a harsh yet humane journey that I could never hope to adequately describe here….
Not everyone is going to like this film, let alone stomach its plot’s more horrific developments. But for those who can ride out the horror, this film might also offer those viewers an important rite of passage, in challenging our views about the nature of the world’s people living in extreme poverty.
This film is fiction. In fact, in many of its scenes, it is largely a joy-filled fairy tale—filled with almost magical happenings, and drawing the viewer into the story in way that holds out hope for a fairy-tale like happy ending. In other ways, like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, it is an evocation of the darkest realities of human nature.
But it’s the children at the heart of this picture that do nothing less than transform one’s heart and mind in ways that make you realize that there’s nothing inherently inferior about those born into extreme poverty—they feel and love and think and grieve and hunger for something better in life just like all of us. For two hours, we’re walking in the shoes of these beautiful children, and nothing about their environment makes us care one iota less about what happens to them.
Never again will I reflect back on the life-changing journey I took to India twenty years ago, thinking of those hutments as a buzzing hive of emptiness, and unimaginable existence. Like all great films, this film has filled in an important gap for me—by opening up my understandings to a world I could never have imagined could exist. Unwittingly, I’d been living a life filled with the incredulity reflected in the film’s depictions of skeptical police that anything or anyone of value could come out of this harsh life of the slums.
History is full of attempts by the powers-that-be to dehumanize a people as a means of avoiding our communal responsibility to create a world in which such horrors would not occur. Those of us who believe in global social justice must constantly seek to counter those dehumanizing forces with authentic storytelling that reminds us of our shared humanity.
In “Slumdog Millionaire,” the horrors of daily life are real. But so are the endearing personalities of the protagonists of this film. As seen through the eyes of these children, this is a film that questions so many basic assumptions that it can’t help but change the way we view other people, no matter how desperate their existence may appear on the surface.
Cultural differences are important and must be respected. At the same time, the very real challenges associated with poverty must never be denied, nor accepted as inevitable. Yet none of this is possible until we take a moment to ponder all that we hold in common as human beings, recognizing that it’s the common threads amidst those constituting the glorious tapestry of humanity that define our interwoven destiny as inhabitants of this earth.