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Sunday, May 11, 2008

following wisdom

April 25, 2008

One of the most compelling aspects of the 2008 presidential race is the widening gap between young voters and their elders. The media is filled with stories of how young people have become passionately involved in the election. Most of them are Democrats, which seems to both stun established party leaders – and simultaneously impress them. Young voters have coalesced around BarackObama’s candidacy in particular. In the myriad of op ed pieces written both before and after the Pennsylvania primary to explain Clinton’s win there, the one that struck me most forcibly identified the state’s population as the 2nd oldest in the U.S., after Florida. Young people have left Pennsylvania in search of jobs.

When I try to think of a time in America when young people got politically active, of course I think of the 60’s. Young people took the lead in the anti-war movement. ..which makes brutal sense when you consider that, given the draft, so many of them were paying an unbearable price for the Vietnam war. And young people rallied in formidable numbers to support of the civil rights movement, using powerful but peaceful means to protest racial segregation. We inherit too many images of the 60’s which denigrate young people as drop outs, druggies, and potheads… but historically it’s true that as protestors, negotiators, spokespeople, soldiers, voters, community organizers and students, they reshaped our country, that they passionately participated in legitimate nonviolent efforts to establish a more just, a more peaceful nation. They gave us a vision of America that many in this theater here tonight learned wisdom from.

And they weren’t very old. Just past their teens. Sometimes in their teens.

Given history, I think we have to ask ourselves… How is it so easy to dismiss young people? How is it so easy to decide that they can’t have the issues right? Why do we allow ourselves to assume that wisdom comes from age? That clarity must be informed by years, by experience?

Perhaps if age could indeed confer wisdom, it might be in the form of a little more humility. And it might keep us listening to young people… because they may very well be the leaders we’re looking for.

when to risk unreasonable... hope

April 18, 2008

Hope and, by extension, hopelessness have been big themes of this year’s presidential campaign. They are themes that resonate with me, and themes that weave through THE PIEMAKER.

I think it’s an almost universal experience of childhood.. that at one point or another you have your hopes dashed. I believe most of us can remember at least one devastating moment of grief when some hope we’d been filled with, silently praying for, wishing and wishing and wishing for doesn’t happen. This might be because as children we are so willing to hope, to hope big, to hope unreasonably even. When I was 5 I hoped fervently and absolutely secretly for a year that my parents would get back together and I was inconsolable the day I discovered that my father was remarrying, the day I knew finally that my wish would not, would never come true.

Experiences like these teach us caution. Teach us how to temper our hopes. Loving parents, totally unnerved and distressed by the wild grief they’ve seen their children feel, do all they can to protect them from more, and with the best of intentions help them lower their sights, scale back, develop a sense of ‘reality.’

The trouble is that then.. we may turn around and find ourselves part of a world of people who have given up hope, who see others through a cynical lens, who believe there is no altruism in the world, no generosity, no real integrity, that everything is ‘fixed’ in favor of a few, and who are too convinced of this version of reality to hold on to even the smallest dream.

I’m an artist, and oddly enough, I make a living at it. Not famous, not rewarded much, but still.. I’m a working artist. Many people assume that means that I’ve followed my dreams, and that things have worked out. Not quite. When I was 18 I imagined myself an actor. I’m not. I’ve done a lot of non-artist things to be able to sustain myself in the theater, learned management, bookkeeping, fundraising, every form of nonprofit administration; I’ve done the labor too, cleaned, moved, painted countless sets late at night. I’ve pinched pennies, I’ve worred a lot. Its not all art. There was compromise, there were difficulties, there were times, when the door closed, and I had to look long and hard for an open window. My life wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I wouldn’t trade it.

Hopelessness is a passive state, an acceptance and belief in limitations… which may or may not be real. It can look bitter, or tired, or smartass, or sad. It tends to spread from the person whose inner mantra is 'I can’t', to telling others… 'you can’t, it won’t happen, oh puhleaaase.'

I don’t like the sort of cheerleading mentoring that just shouts out at young people, 'Hey, follow your dreams!' That’s not backing young people, that’s just trying to sound like you’ve got hope for them even if you don’t. But if instead, older people might say to younger people (and maybe even to themselves) … now what is it you hope for? Uh-huh. Well, that’s a great hope.. I think you can get there but there are going to be some obstacles on the way. How about we do a little research, begin to shape a strategy for how you might move down that road?

If a dream isn’t worth taking the time to strategize for, then it’s just a passing fancy. When you’re talking about a real heartfelt dream… there’s always the willingness to work for it. A dream like that should stay alive. A dream like that deserves support.

leadership is an invitation

April 12, 2008

THE PIEMAKER emerged out of my struggles last summer to care about or feel engaged in American politics. As I wrote it, I tried to think back to a time when the country felt different to me. I found myself going way back to 1968, a turbulent moment in American history, a turbulent moment for me personally. That was the year King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the year my mother married my stepfather who is African American, the year I was a new arrival in my 4th grade class across the bay from San Francisco.

I was one of six white children in my class; my first time being in a minority. My teacher, Mrs. Goff, who was also black, was a kind, loving, hard-working teacher. She took a shine to me… perhaps simply because I was interested in school, in reading and writing, and it made her job a little easier. But she made her fondness for me obvious, and, in her own kind way, unintentionally added to the awkward painfulness of that year for me.

Mrs. Goff decided that I should run for President of the student body. I didn’t want to but had no idea at that time how to say ‘no’ to a teacher. To my great chagrin and her hearty approval, our student teacher, who had artistic aspirations, drew a portrait of me, and Mrs. Goff had it Xeroxed and posted all over the school as part of my ‘campaign’. Looking back, I can only say that Mrs. Goff was pretty na├»ve about how this would go over in child culture. I was a new girl, just arrived from the East, a white girl in a predominantly black school, receiving a lavish amount of praise and attention from my teachers, and now with my picture was plastered everywhere. I didn’t want to be President. I didn’t want to win. I just wanted peace and a few friends. Instead I found myself at the center of a schoolyard controversy, a battle of shifting lines, shifting allegiances, and powerful feelings about race. In child culture, which actually may be one of the clearest minded subcultures that America has, dialogue about race simply came down to this – one people had been slave owners, the other had been slaves. I thought a tremendous amount about the horrors of slavery that year and fervently, with all my soul, wished I could be free of that awful legacy. I think many, many, people have wished the same for America.

At one point, the scuffles, threats, and fury that were roiling through the 4th grade came to the attention of our Principal. He was a young man, with a reputation for being cool because he’d sometimes join our kickball games and play fiercely. For the first time in my life, I got summoned to the Principal’s office. He asked me what was going on in the 4th grade… such a huge open ended question… as I began my attempt to answer, I got choked up, began to weep silently and his phone rang. He took the call. I sat there weeping while he had his talk, and when he got off, I was quiet. He looked at me, then told me to go back to class.

Mrs. Goff was an intelligent extremely well-meaning adult who, like many others, including my Principal, didn’t really pay close attention to young people. If she’d allowed herself to cross a bit further into the child culture that was raging all around her, she might have been a great help. She might have brokered a truce, maybe even a new alliance. But her leadership remained at a distance.. and she never grappled with the difficult realities of the school’s community life. She had gifts, she even offered comfort of a generous sort, but she was reluctant to get engaged. She never placed herself in a position where we could know what she really thought… she never spoke honestly from the heart to us or listened with an open mind to our concerns. It was more than was required of her position …. And she didn’t choose to go that extra distance.

Life too often teaches us that leaders let us down. That we shouldn’t get our hopes up that someone will really listen, and that, having listened, then offer us a new insight, a way forward we hadn’t seen. But the truth is that all of us have been called to lead, that life is always inviting us to lead. That all of us are needed. In fact, there is so much need in the world, it can be overwhelming. Still, I think that in general we can challenge ourselves to see if we have erred towards the side of generosity, if we’ve been willing at least sometimes to go the extra distance, if we can pay… without for one moment regretting the cost.. attention.

on opening THE PIEMAKER

Friday, April 04, 2008

When I began dreaming up THE PIEMAKER last summer, I was thinking about how little interest I had felt in American politics for quite some time… for some time I had taken to concentrating on the events in my own neighborhood, my own small world, and letting the larger world picture drift by without much attention. And I was feeling a bit worried about this.. about my ..well, lack of interest. For me THE PIEMAKER began with that question… what is our relationship with civic life, what causes it to wax and wane, how do we cope with our inspirations and our disappointments in our community, our town, our leaders, our nation?

I was only 10 years old in 1968, but it was a powerful year for me. I was living in California for the first time, across the bay from San Francisco and its Summer of Love culture. For the first time, I was in the minority in my school – the majority of the students and my teacher were black. I wore beads and floppy hats, I was used to flashing Peace signs to people from our school bus, to ‘Black Power’ fists in the friendly and familiar hands of my classmates, to the Jackson Five and to the scary stuff on TV about guerilla warfare and Vietnam. I felt the hope and inspiration raised in my mom and other adults by Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. And then the killings began. 40 years ago tonight, King was shot and killed. Two months later, in my own California, Bobby Kennedy died the same way.

Hope and despair, chaos and optimism.. my 1968 was made of these things. For me, redemption arrived that spring when my stepfather, Mel Mister, who is African American married my mom and made me feel I was part of what America could become – a loving diverse family.

As I was beginning THE PIEMAKER I thought about those times… and how there seemed to be no question in the adults around me then as to being involved in the world, in the shaping of their nation. They were active and engaged. And this gave me, as a child in a turbulent time, hope.

Ten years later, America was as disillusioned as it could be. That is when the story you’ll see tonight begins. When people, in a kind of retreat, went ‘back to the land’, when American culture got dubbed the ‘me’ generation, when civic life no longer seemed an avenue towards a better world.

I have grown up in a family who believed – and I inherit this belief – that working together we can make things better. That in community is the power for change. That being active on behalf of those who are poor, those who are treated with injustice, those who are getting a raw deal is a good thing, an important thing.

It may not seem at times that the arts play a very significant role here. But on the other hand, the arts can create community – a theater, this theater here tonight, can bring people together – and we can think about things, explore ideas, wonder about our lives as we follow the stories of other lives, consider our choices, look towards our future in a place like this. At this theater, we can also think about and look closely at the young members of our community. Think about who they are, what gifts they bring, what we, the older ones, want for them. In these ways, art has the potential to connect us to each other and help us shape and develop our thinking, our decisions.

Many of you know Downtown Art has been engaged in an uphill battle to open a new expanded arts center on this block. We’ve passed some important tests, bought a vacant building, raised a great sum of money, and though a long slow construction and further design process is ahead.. this spring the work begins. What is much more important than the building though, is what will be in it. Young people, of course. And theater. But more… we will launch programs in music (we have already got a community of young musicians, composers and singers here) and video… and finally, my own breakthrough happened, when it came to me that we should launch, side by side with these programs, a program of community service projects. Opportunities for young people to lead efforts and get involved in issues they care about – with support and helpful experience from a few adults. I think that the liveliness that will be fired up by having creative work and community commitment live together in one home will be a source of inspiration and hope for all of us.