21st Century Leadership: On Overcoming Fear and Negativity to Work for a Livable Future

This week, coming off the exhilarating high of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I started teaching a brand-new class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, “Leadership and Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

We spent the first day just working with the concept of Leadership—thinking about great leaders and what qualities they possessed that helped them achieve their goals and bring so many others along with them.

And then we thought about what might hold us back from stepping into our own potential as leaders.

The number one obstacle to becoming a great leader, at least from the perspective of the dozen or so students in the room that day, is FEAR.

They quickly generated a long list of very specific paralyzing fears, and as each fear was voiced, the nodding and comments in the room made it clear that it was widely shared.

I certainly recognized many of my own fears on their list, which I will append at the bottom of this post, along with our list of the qualities necessary for great leadership.

A big part of my motivation for offering this class is simply to help students face and learn to work with their fears and insecurities, rather than doing what I did at their age, which was to allow my fears to push me back onto the sidelines, an observer rather than someone who felt empowered to be out in front leading others.

It’s been a long journey for me to learn that, as Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins put it in their excellent little book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, “Fear is pure energy. It’s a signal. It might mean stop. It could mean go.”

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

I remember when I invited Frances Moore Lappé to speak at Simon’s Rock a few years ago, she began her talk acknowledging that being up alone on the stage, in the spotlight, made her nervous. But, she said, she has learned to recognize that fluttery, jittery feeling as a sign that she is doing something important, something that matters—and to let the nerves (what some might call the adrenaline rush) work for her rather than against her.

As someone who for many years was overcome with stage fright every time I had to speak in front of an audience, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that the multitudinous fears I had been carrying around with me all those years began to melt away, and I can’t say I know for sure what did it, other than forcing myself, over and over again, to get up there in front of audiences and DO IT ANYWAY, because I knew that a) the work I was being called to do was important, and not just for myself; b) if I didn’t speak about the issues I wanted to focus on in that particular time and place, no one else would; and c) there was absolutely no good rational reason for me to be afraid of speaking to the audiences I was addressing.

Clearly, one necessary ingredient of leadership is a willingness to walk with the fears, risking encounters with whatever devils those fears represent.

We’re out of time: climate change demands extraordinary leadership, now

If I am propelled now into doing all I can to catalyze leadership in my community, whether in the classroom or through the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, it is because I know that we no longer have the luxury of time to stand silently on the sidelines observing, as I did for a good part of my life.

There is simply too much at stake now, and things are happening too fast.

There are some signs that the American political and intellectual establishment is finally shaking off its lethargy and beginning to at least recognize that yes, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pulled no punches in documenting and describing just how dire our immediate global future looks, thanks to human-induced climate change. And for a change, this “old news” was immediately carried on the front page of The New York Times, which has been ignoring and downplaying the climate change issue for years—and strongly echoed by its editorial page as well.


Yes, it’s true—climate change is real, it’s already happening, and there is no telling where it will lead us. If governments immediately start to act with furious speed and concentration, there is a chance we could backpedal our way into a precarious new normal, keeping our climate about as it is now.

If this kind of leadership is not shown, then all bets are off for the future—and we’re not talking about a hundred years from now, we’re talking about the future we and our children and grandchildren will be living through in the coming decades.

In short, we are living through extraordinary times, times that demand extraordinary leadership. And not just from politicians and heads of state, but from each and every one of us.

As global citizens with a stake in our future, each one of us is now being called to turn off the TV, get up off the couch, step out of the shadows, and SHOW UP to do whatever we can do, to offer our skills and talents to the greater good.

For some that will mean showing up at the 350.org climate change rally in Washington DC this month, demanding that our Congress and President represent the interests of we the people, not just the fossil fuel industry.

Teachers like me can start to offer students the tools and skills they will need to become the 21st century leaders humanity needs—leaders who see the big picture, respond empathetically to the plight not just of humans but of all living beings on the planet, and have the resolve, drive and courage to stand up and lead the way towards implementing the solutions that already exist, and innovating the solutions that have not yet been imagined.

Our media likes to bombard us daily with all the bad news on the planet: wars and random violence, natural disasters, corruption and greed, unemployment and health crises, environmental degradation…the list goes on and on. The cumulative effect of this constant negative litany is a feeling of hopelessness, despair, powerlessness and paralysis—the antithesis of what is needed for energetic, forward-looking, positive leadership.

Simply becoming aware of the extent to which your daily absorption of bad news depresses your spirit is a step on the road to switching the channel, metaphorically speaking, and beginning to focus on what can be done to make things better.

This is not pie-in-the-sky rainbow thinking, this is about doing what is necessary to ensure a livable future. One of the most important qualities of good leaders, my students and I agreed, is positive thinking and a can-do spirit.

If there was ever a time these qualities were needed, it is now—and in each and every one of us.


NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic


Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea






Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears


Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating


Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges


Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities



Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

Good models: “be the change you want to see”


Able to communicate with different groups of people & in different forms of media

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people



Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice


Assertive; firm but not attacking—“real power doesn’t need to attack”

Clear on what they want; clear goals



Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive


Resistant to corruption


JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?


Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure


Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

Fear of fulfilling certain negative stereotypes (“Ban Bossy”)

Fear of being perceived as manly (if you’re a woman)

Fear of not being “man enough” (if you’re a man)

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

Fear of having the minority opinion (saying something unpopular, not being able to

convince people)

Fear of being part of a marginalized group & expecting not to be heard/respected

Fear of leaving someone behind / a voice behind / not hearing other issues (ranking & hierarchy)

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

Fear of not being ready / not knowing what your “issue” is

Fear of being seen


Negative Qualities that may hold us back




Empathy—taking things too personally


Staying under the radar



Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning


What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

Acting to save others instead of trying to achieve your own goals/authentic mission



Social upbringing


Not having access to audience—tools to connect

Race/class/gender/sexuality/etc—social categories

Location (geographic)


Filial piety—not wanting to go against expectations & will of family & society

Influence of media on self-esteem


Ronan Farrow’s Beacon of Hope

“One of the most difficult things to do is to infuse in young people a sense of empathy and a larger world…to give them a perspective that is more macro and less narcissistic,” Jon Stewart said in his recent interview with Ronan Farrow.

Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow

Farrow, when asked how he came by his desire to make a positive difference in the world, replied that it was growing up in a “mini-United Nations” sort of family (many of his 13 siblings were adopted from all over the world, some with serious physical or mental disabilities) that gave him the desire to become an agent for positive change on a worldwide scale.

Mia did something right to have set such a force in motion!

Ronan Farrow was a prodigy, going to college at my home institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, at the tender age of 11.  Although I never had him in class, I remember seeing him on campus, his bright blond hair always a stand-out, his small frame bent beneath a heavy backpack of books.

He went on to Yale Law School at 18, after serving a two-year stint as a youth ambassador at the United Nations; then became a Rhodes Scholar, worked at the State Department, and is now about to launch his own cable news show.

At 26, he’s done more than most of us will ever do.

I am quite impressed by the agenda he’s set for his show.  It will be news aimed at a youth audience, specifically designed to spark the empathy Stewart referred to, and not only that but to give his audience concrete options for taking action on the issues and situations presented.

Every show will have a “call to action,” Farrow said, and “a menu of things to do”; ways “to move the needle” on important issues.

I have noticed from my years of working with young people on social and environmental justice issues that they get very impatient and turned-off by discussions of problems that don’t also include solutions, preferably along with ways that they can get involved in moving the solutions forward.

It must be his twenty-something instinct that is prompting Ronan Farrow to put his talents and connections to work in creating just the kind of show his own generation is longing for.

It will have the celebrity pizzazz that his handsome face and famous name brings; the erudition and seriousness of purpose that his education and professional experience has provided; and with any luck, it will be a real beacon of active hope for millions of potential young change agents.

Go Ronan!  It is great to see a young person who is so clearly in the flow of living his purpose.

Drinking Deep from the Elixir of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

BFWW-vertical-logoJanuary is the season when I must work like mad to get the Program for the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers out to the printers, so that it will be ready to distribute in February.

For months now, program coordinator Jan Hutchinson and I have been finalizing all the details, gathering the descriptions and bios and photos for no fewer than 58 separate events, featuring more than 150 women and girls at some thirty different venues throughout Berkshire County, including of course our principal sponsor Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

We’ve also been soliciting advertising and sponsors with the help of our hard-working Miss Hall’s School Horizons interns, supervised by organizing committee volunteers Judy Nardacci and Lorrin Krouss.

And committee members Maureen Hickey, Joanne Cooney, Vera Kalm and Johanna Janssen have been helping to generate the funds necessary to sustain a growing Festival like this one, with considerable success—we have dozens of contributors to thank this year.

Once I finish my part of the Program, I’ll send the copy over to Festival graphic designers Alice and Anna Myers, who will work their magic and send it off to our fabulous printer, John DiSantis at Quality Printing, who always does such a stellar job for us.

Then we’ll turn out attention to getting the website up to speed, and getting out our own publicity in local and regional publications and calendars, aided by the very capable and calm Lynnette Lucy Najimy of Beansprout Productions.

In short, our Festival is a huge effort, representing the combined forces of so many talented people in the Berkshires, all coming together to brighten up the often drab month of March with readings, workshops, performances and discussions highlighting the creative energy of women and girls.

I may be grumbling about the frenetic workload now, but I know once March 1 rolls around and our Festival starts to gather steam, the delicious vitality of women’s words will carry me along to inspirational highs I could never have conjured on my own.

1528653_548356822534_515979881_nThat’s what the Festival is all about—it’s a grand collaborative gift that we give to our community, and not only in March.  This year we’ve begun to offer year-round programming as well: the monthly Lean In group for women writers, co-hosted by Lesley Ann Beck and yours truly at the Berkshire Museum; the Writing from the Heart readings, which we’ll be offering next on February 13 at The Mount; a special Mother’s Day event planned for May at the Sandisfield Arts Center; and the new weeklong Writing Workshops for Women, going on right now and again in June.

The energy of so many creative women and girls coming together to share their ideas and perspectives in the public sphere ignites an alchemical combustion that produces a heady, exhilarating kind of mental/emotional elixir.

We all feel it, presenters and audiences alike—the sheer joy of coming together to shine our creative lanterns at each other, beckoning and inspiring each other on to new heights.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call what we do in the Festival “displaying the lantern of the soul.”  In a recent blog post she said that “to display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.”

Meet us out on deck at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and bring your lantern!  Let’s create beacons bright enough to illuminate the way forward, together.

Cherry Hill Beach copy

Commencement 2013: Questions for Ben Bernanke

Tis the season of college Commencement ceremonies, where speakers are invited to address the graduates, giving them some advice and words of wisdom for this major transition time in their lives.

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke

At my institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the Class of 2013 will be addressed by none other than Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose son and daughter-in-law met as Simon’s Rock students.

Of course I am curious to hear what Mr. Bernanke will tell these spanking-new A.A. and B.A. graduates.

I wonder if he will mention the touchy issue of student debt, which the eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz just called a contemporary crisis on the same order of magnitude as the housing bubble crisis of 2008.

Stiglitz doesn’t mince his words in responding to the news that “total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed total credit-card debt last year.”  While it’s possible to learn to control credit card spending, he says, “curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity. College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries.”

In other words, young Americans and their families can’t afford not to do whatever it takes—including going into debt—to get that college degree, and beyond that graduate degrees as well.

The students I know are increasingly aware of their place in the big picture of American society.

Those who must take out loans to afford their college educations do so with eyes open, knowing that these loans will form a ball and chain around their ankles for many years to come.

I wonder if Ben Bernanke will talk about this?

Will he talk to this year’s graduating class about how, unlike with credit card or mortgage debt, it is almost impossible to discharge a student loan in bankruptcy court?

Will he explain why interest rates on Federal student loans are so much higher than the interest rates on the loans the Federal Reserve has made to the banks that caused the financial crisis of 2008?

As Mr. Stiglitz observes, “if the Federal Reserve is willing to lend to the banks that caused the crisis at just 0.75 percent, shouldn’t it be willing to lend to students, who will be crucial to our long-term recovery, at an appropriately low rate? The government shouldn’t be profiting from our poorest while subsidizing our richest.”

Besides the $1 trillion in student debt, there have been other major records broken in the past few weeks that Mr. Bernanke could address.  The Dow Jones has climbed above 15,000 this spring, a benchmark many thought would never be reached; and the carbon emissions rate has climbed above 400 parts per million, causing polar sea ice melt at rates and levels not seen in human history.

Will Mr. Bernanke talk about how and why it is that in a time when wealth disparity between the 1% and the rest is growing ever vaster, while the planet heats up and becomes ever more unstable and vulnerable, the stock market is soaring as never before?

I would be quite interested to hear his take on that.

Generally Commencement addresses are exhortatory in style.  Go forth, ye graduates, and conquer the world!  Or make it a better place!  Or do well for yourselves at least!

Today’s graduates need all the encouragement they can get as they make their way out into a society, a world and a planet where only the richest can feel secure—and even for those folks, climate change may make a mockery of that sense of stability.

The qualities most needed today are collaboration, creativity and resilience, along with a willingness to think outside the box and go for the roads less traveled.

Students at Simon’s Rock, a non-traditional early college for brilliant non-conformists, have all of these qualities and more.

I am proud to have accompanied some of them on a piece of their journey, and look to them to lead the way into the future we must all confront.

I hope that Ben Bernanke, who well knows the school and the type of students it attracts, will speak to them frankly and in good faith about the challenges ahead and how best to be not part of the problem, but cutting-edge leaders in the quest for solutions.

Fault-lines of American Educational Policy & Practice

When I read about how students at Stuyvesant High School and Harvard University, to name only two recent prominent examples, used everything from notes on scraps of paper to texting answers on cell phones to help each other out on exams, I shake my head—not at the students’ behavior, but at the institutional culture to which they were responding.

I am fortunate to be teaching at an institution that values collaboration rather than competition, and thoughtfully constructed arguments over right-or-wrong multiple choice tests.

Granted, I teach in the humanities, where memorization is less important than in the hard sciences.

But even in the sciences, given the ready accessibility of our collective auxiliary internet brain trust, do we really need to be forcing students to memorize the periodical table anymore?

Isn’t it more important that give them assignments and challenges that will develop their teamwork skills and encourage them to think creatively, rather than spit back knowledge that has already been established?

Nearly fifty years ago, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he described “the banking system of education,” whereby students are treated as repositories for information that will be deposited into them by teachers.  Teachers are then able to “withdraw” the information from the students by means of tests.

Notice that it’s the teachers who are the active ones in this scenario; the students are simply passive recipients of knowledge.

In contrast, Freire proposed a dialogic form of education, where students’ ideas are valued by their teachers, and the pedagogical method is more of a conversation than a one-way lecture.

While still popular in some theoretical educational circles, it’s clear that Freire’s ideas are not in ascendancy in current American educational policy, which, in the No Child Left Behind era, has turned education into a process of leaping through the hoops of a long series of standardized tests.

I see this in my 14-year-old son’s current schooling in our local public school, which is in many ways about as good as a small-town American public school gets.  But nevertheless, even the best teachers there are forced to spend a lot of their time coaching the kids on passing the MCAS standardized tests that will be administered next May.


Back in the 1970s, I went to a selective New York City public school, Hunter College High School.  When I took the entry test, in sixth grade, I had no test prep whatsoever.  My parents were very nonchalant about the whole thing, so I wasn’t nervous about it—it was just something I had to do, so I went in and did my best.  I got in, along with five others from my elementary school, P.S. 6.

Hunter College High School

What I remember from my four years at Hunter is earnest, thoughtful discussion classes in English and Social Studies and even Spanish, with teachers who treated us like budding intellectuals.  When I left Hunter after 10th grade to transfer to Simon’s Rock College, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the classroom conversations got even livelier and more compelling, and the written assignments more challenging.  We were asked to write analytic essays, persuasive essays and informed opinion pieces…over and over, at ever-higher standards of rigor.

The process culminated in the required year-long senior thesis project, which for me, as an English major, was an in-depth study of the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf.  There is no doubt in my mind that the joy I got out of reading everything Woolf wrote, and all the literary criticism and proto-queer theory I could find, led me to eventually choose to return to graduate school for a doctorate in Comparative Literature.

My point in relating this personal trajectory is to reflect that if I had only been asked, at each stage of my schooling, to memorize information and spit it back out to a teacher (or worse, a robo-grader) on standardized tests, I don’t know that I would have chosen, in my time, to undertake the hard work of earning a doctorate and becoming a professor myself.

I would have had a very different idea of what education was all about.

And sadly, competitive, test-taking does pass for education in too many scholastic and even academic environments these days.  Given this reality, who can fault students for trying to game a system that so clearly disrespects them as intellectuals and original thinkers?


Last week, The New York Times reported that “a coalition of educational and civil rights groups filed a federal complaint…saying that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately excluded from New York City’s most selective high schools because of a single-test admittance policy they say is racially discriminatory.

Stuy HS students, 2007. Photo by Annie Tritt for The New York Times

“Although 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Hispanic,” the article continued, “a far smaller percentage have scored high enough to receive offers from one of the schools. According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.”

These are demographics I recognize from my memories of my time at Hunter College High School, back in the 1970s.  There were hardly any Black or Latino students there then; Asian students accounted for most of whatever ethnic diversity the school could claim.

Why aren’t the city’s African American and Latino students doing well on the admission tests?


An article from the current issue of The Atlantic provides a window of insight into this question.  In “The Writing Revolution,” author Peg Tyre takes us inside one of New York City’s failing public high schools, New Dorp in Staten Island, and shows how student performance dramatically improved once school principal Deirdre DeAngelis began demanding a greater focus on essay-writing in the classrooms.

In this, DeAngelis was bucking the national trend observed by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany, who, Tyre says, “found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks. ‘Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,’ says Applebee, ‘has become increasingly rare.’”

At New Dorp High School, it turned out that the students simply did not know how to construct the kinds of good sentences that would enable them to build a logical, well-thought-out argument. They weren’t used to talking in such sentences, they didn’t do much reading, and they didn’t come from a home environment where the adults spoke in the way the students were being asked to write in school.

For someone like me, an avid reader with parents who were also educated, enthusiastic conversationalists and readers, learning to write came very naturally. But for kids coming out of underprivileged backgrounds, more has to be done in school to make up for what they’re not getting at home.

So I’m glad to see that the new Common Core standards that will be adopted by 46 states in the next two years do require the teaching of expository writing from elementary school on.

“For the first time,” writes Tyre, “elementary-school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.”

Tyre predicts that it is likely that “the new writing standards will deliver a high-voltage shock to the American public. Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year.”


Maybe a high-voltage shock is what America’s public education system needs to move it from teaching to multiple-choice tests to teaching kids how to think creatively and write eloquently.

As a writing teacher myself, I know how hard it is to “teach” good writing.  When I grade a paper, I know what I’m looking for, but I can’t always tell a student exactly how to get there.

More than anything else, it takes practice. Lots of reading good writing, and lots of writing, rewriting, and writing again.

At Bard College at Simon’s Rock, our orientation workshop for entering freshman is actually a writing boot camp, the Writing & Thinking Workshop, in which we have students reading, discussing, writing and workshopping writing for five hours a day during their first week at school.  We follow this up with three semesters of a required general education seminar, in which students are reading, discussing and writing almost constantly.

As a graduate of Simon’s Rock, the parent of a recent graduate, and a veteran of nearly 20 years as a Simon’s Rock professor of literature and general education, I know this approach works.

Sure, once in a while we have a student who tries to get away with plagiarizing a paper.  They are generally caught easily, because of all the draft stages we require students to go through on the way to turning in their final paper.

Relatively few students try cheating at Simon’s Rock, though, because they know we professors really want to know what they think about a given topic.  For us, learning is truly a dialogic process, and students quickly respond to the seriousness with which we take them as creative, original thinkers and writers.


Fundamentally, American educational policy needs to start treating students with the respect they deserve, whether they are at elite private schools or underperforming public schools.

It’s not the kid’s fault if he doesn’t know how to construct an expository argument in good English, any more than it’s the kid’s fault if she decides to cheat on a test she knows doesn’t measure her accurately as a thinker.  It’s the school’s fault, and ultimately the nation’s fault.

Given the multiple crises today’s young people will be facing as they become adults on our overpopulated, environmentally damaged, violent planet, we need to be educating a generation of creative, collaborative problem-solvers for whom spoken and written eloquence is a necessary leadership tool.

This is not a matter of policy or even ethics.  It’s a matter of survival.

A la recherche du temps perdu

I have always been very sensitive to the passage of time.  As a child, I often began a long, golden summer season grieving in advance for its end.

I remember how, during long car rides with my family—my mother, my father, my brother, my dog and cat—I was aware of a sense of perfect contentment, thinking ‘if only this moment could go on forever, for here we all are, everyone I love, complete and whole and happy.’

Now, looking into the future and knowing how close our planet is to a major realignment of living systems, it seems there is always a part of me that is engaged in the long, drawn-out process of grieving in advance.

No moment can last forever.  Grief is inevitable for those of us who open our hearts to attachment.

These thoughts are at the forefront of my mind today because this weekend I am having the odd experience of participating in my 30-year college reunion, seeing people with whom I shared some of my most formative, impressionable teenage moments, now grown older, grayer, wider, hopefully wiser too.

At the start of the weekend, I attended a play written and directed by Simon’s Rock alum Pooja Roo Prema, featuring a cast composed mostly of different generations of Simon’s Rock graduates.  Called “Isis-Chernobyl: A Tale of Uncertain Fruit,” the play is impossible to summarize in a nutshell, other than to say that it is an extended allegory of grief.

Pooja describes it as more a ritual enactment than an entertainment, which is certainly true; it has elements of high Greek tragedy, as well as Shakespearian clowning, but the thread that runs through it all is the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the unimaginable desolation of a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Isis, wandering the earth seeking the lost, dismembered parts of her beloved Osiris, could be any one of us wandering the haunted landscapes of our own memories, seeing people, places and events that once were woven into the warp of our being, but have become lost in the forward rush of life’s unfolding.

Reuniting now with generations of Simon’s Rock alumni, my own cohort past midlife and facing a future likely to be shorter than our past, I am reminded once again of how important it is to seize each moment, make the most of each day, appreciate one’s friends and family before they are torn from us by the relentless cyclical forces of life and death.

Isis can never be satisfied in her quest to feel again the smooth living skin and warm kisses of her lover, but she can reanimate his spirit in her own grieving flesh and mind.

Just as every car ride of my childhood came inevitably to an end, these days too shall pass, living on only in our memories.

This Memorial Day, I celebrate memory: the living memories of past happiness that glow within us like shining stars as well as the dark, grieving memories of people and places lost to us forever.

Let a million local media outlets and citizen journalists bloom

As we head into the 10-day countdown to May Day, once again the mainstream media is snoozing its way into irrelevance.

Check out today’s New York Times and you will find nary a mention of the busy preparations going on now for the day of action in New York and around the country on May 1.

This seems to just prove the point of media pundit Dr. Alan Chartock, founding president and CEO of the 20-station, seven-state Northeast Public Radio Network here in my neck of the woods.

Speaking last Sunday at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Dr. Chartock depicted a coming media landscape dominated by a few big national and international players, reaching audiences principally through the World Wide Web.

Progressive media analysts have long been concerned about the homogenization of the news that comes as a result of corporate conglomerates controlling vast swaths of the airwaves, as well as almost all print news outlets.

The good news is that at least so far, it has been impossible to impose corporate control over the internet.  Witness the huge outcry over the proposed PIPA and SOPA legislation last winter, which critics said would have limited free speech on the Web.  Millions of signatures were collected on petitions against the legislation, and the proponents backed down—at least for now.

Dr. Alan Chartock

Dr. Chartock is worried about the wholesale media move to the internet for two good reasons.

One, accuracy: it is often impossible to know for sure that the information on a given blog or even larger online media outlet has been carefully and objectively reported.

Two, money: Where is the business model that will support the reporters and editors needed to continue to perform the traditional watchdog role of the press?

It seems to me that his own Northeast Public Radio Network provides a good answer to these issues.  It is supported by local listeners and underwriters who put their dollars behind the station because they recognize a good thing when they see one.  They would start to withdraw their support if the quality of the programming went down.

To counter the drift to a globalized corporate media desert, let’s let a million local radio stations, blogs, vlogs, livestreams, tweets and You-Tube videos bloom!

Let’s not only support our locally owned, locally produced media, let’s start producing it too!

Here in the Berkshires, we not only have WAMC and other Northeast Public Radio affiliate stations, we also have WBCR-LP, which is not only 100% listener-supported but also all-volunteer and open to any citizen journalist who takes the trouble to get trained as a programmer.

We have the Berkshire Record, our hometown print newspaper in Great Barrington, and we also have iBerkshires and various locally produced blogs and small websites.

And let’s not forget the countless Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and You-Tube channels devoted to getting us localized news we can use.

The truth is that the Occupy movement doesn’t need the New York Times to reach its target audience.  The fact that the mainstream media is ignoring the upcoming May Day protests is just one more example of how dominated by the 1% these big media corporations are.

Whose media?  Our media!  Mainstream media?  Who needs’em?

Sparking Creativity at the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

It’s finally snowing in Massachusetts!  My afternoon meetings were cancelled, and I can settle in by the fire and enjoy the peaceful quiet that always descends when we hunker down under a good New England snowfall.

This gives me a welcome chance to share something positive for a change with my blog readers.

Tomorrow is the opening of the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long celebration of the talents of local and regional women writers, taking place at venues from one end of Berkshire County to the other, with nearly 100 women participating.

I’ve been working over the past year with a dedicated local committee on planning and organizing this event, which is sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock with the generous support of 11 Local Cultural Councils and many other donors, businesses and individuals, all listed on our website under “sponsors.”

This will be our second annual Festival, but it’s an event that grows out of the decade of annual conferences I organized at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in observance of International Women’s Day, co-sponsored by Berkshire Women for Women Worldwide, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, the Women’s Interfaith Institute and many other collaborators.

I’ve been at this a while.

Organizing events like these takes an extraordinary amount of energy, focus and commitment.  If you’ve ever organized a wedding, you have some idea of what’s involved–although for our conferences and Festivals, we’ve also had to do a fair amount of fundraising, which hopefully is not the case for wedding planners!

There always comes a point in the process where I bury my face in my hands and feel like crying, out of sheer exhaustion, “Why am I doing this to myself?!!”

After all, no one ever asked me to take on this extra commitment, year after year.

And sometimes I wonder whether anyone would notice if I stopped.

But then that low point passes, the brochure or Program comes back from the printers and starts to make its way in the world, the press inquiries pick up and I start hearing the oohs and ahhs of appreciation from participants and audience members, and I remember what it’s all about.

For women writers, in particular, it can be hard to find opportunities to come together and share our talents and achievements with each other and the larger world.

Hannah Fries

This weekend is the big AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, and many women writers will be in attendance there, including one of our Festival organizers and participants, Orion Magazine editor Hannah Fries.  But that is a big, competitive event, which can be overwhelming for writers who are just starting out, or who just write for the personal satisfaction of it.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is purposefully low-key and non-competitive.  We organizers wanted to create a broad, inclusive platform for all kinds of women writers, of all ages, backgrounds, and stages in their writing careers.  If you browse the Festival listings, you’ll see a few names you’ll probably recognize, like Francine Prose and Ruth Reichl, but many more whose fresh, innovative voices might not be heard publicly this year without the space provided by our Festival.

I also sometimes ask myself why I continue to focus on women writers in my classes, events organizing and in my own writing.

Lately I have been moving from a longstanding focus on global women’s rights to a broader human rights perspective, still with a strong interest in gendered human rights issues.  Although the goal for any social justice activist is to put herself out of business, it still seems important to me to draw attention to voices who might not otherwise be heard–and the 50% of us who are women are disproportionately represented among those quieter voices.

The participants and audiences who will be gathering at the 40 Festival events scheduled daily throughout the month of March will  together generate a host of collaborative creative sparks that will go shooting out like fireworks, energizing all of us and giving us new strength and determination to meet the challenges of the coming year, whether at our writing desks or in other areas of our lives.

I certainly hope that just as women always turn out to listen to and learn from writers who happen to be men, men will also be among the audiences at all of our Festival events.

In these sobering times, we need all the chances we can get to come together and fan the flames of our community and our creativity.  Let the Festival begin!

A new generation rises, and with them, our hopes

Today I gave the keynote address at the regional Model UN student conference sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

On the one hand, it was heart-warming to look out and see that crowded lecture hall filled with bright, eager young faces, ready to step on to the world stage, if only in theory, and play leadership roles.

On the other hand, it was sobering to have to be the bearer of such grim tidings.

I started out by taking them back to a choral Ode in the Antigone that has always haunted me, the one where the Chorus sings the praises of human technological prowess, while at the same time sounding a warning note about how mankind’s “cunning…is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good.

“When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he has sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city has he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin.”

In other words, I told the students, we humans can do all kinds of amazing things with our great intelligence, but we will only prosper if we keep our moral compass and use our powers for good.

The Ode is basically a list of areas in which human beings have excelled, and that list is as valid today as it was in the 5th century B.C.: our power of navigation and transportation; agriculture; our dominion over other animals, wild and domestic; our ability to withstand the elements by building shelter and creating fire; our medical arts; our facility with language and “wind-swift thought.”

Truly we are a “wondrous” species.  And yet the fact that this list is recited in the tragedy of Antigone bears witness to the fact that our great “cunning” does not always guide us well.

In Antigone, Creon is a proud, vindictive tyrant who demands absolute allegiance from his subjects, including his niece Antigone.  When Antigone defies his order to let her brother’s remains be left in the open for the crows to feast on, and goes out alone to bury him, Creon goes into a fury and orders her arrested and sentenced to death.

It’s clear that the Chorus in this play believes Creon’s action is wrong.  Antigone was obeying her own moral judgement, putting her filial and religious obligations before her allegiance to the King. And just as the Chorus predicted in the initial Ode, because he is not using his power wisely and ethically, in the end Creon’s house will fall.

In our time, I told the students, the same kinds of battles rage, of good people standing up for their beliefs against oppressive tyrants, who don’t hesitate to imprison and even execute any who defy their power.

The Arab Spring showed us what can happen when enough people dare to speak truth to power and defy an authoritarian state  In the United States, the Occupy movements are now standing up, not so much against the state, as against the corporate capitalist elites—who often are the power behind the thrones of the various nations.

Even in our own country, the price of defying the status quo can be high.

But, I told the students, given the perilous state of the world today, the price of staying quiet and going along with the flow is inevitably going to be much higher.

I reminded them of the many dangers that face us today, including:

  • the homogenization of media and the reduction of education to multiple choice tests, instead of a media that stands strong in its watchdog role and an educational system that focuses on teaching students how to think creatively and question authority;
  • the tremendous militarization of police and national forces, with most countries fairly bristling with lethal weapons, from handguns to bombs;
  • environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, including the contamination of our air, soils and waters with toxic chemicals caused by the very agriculture celebrated in the Antigone Ode;
  • serious health problems caused by environmental toxins and chemical additives in our food supply;
  • and above all, the looming menace of anthropogenic global warming.

These will be familiar themes to anyone who has been reading my blog these past few months.  But it was good to speak these ideas out loud this time, to the young people who are going to have to bear the brunt of the problems.

I quoted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who told negotiators from 200 nations gathered at the recent COP17 climate conference in Durban that the situation was so urgent that they could not afford to wait for unified global action.

“Don’t wait for a binding agreement,” he said. “It could take years. All member states should take their own measures,” before it’s too late.

“Last year we saw the highest emissions ever,” Mr. Ban said. “If we carry on as though it is business as usual we will be out of business.”

Those are pretty stark, unequivocal words from the leader of the closest thing we have to a global government.

Given the need for drastic change in the way we do business as a civilization, I challenged the students to dare to think outside the box.

I encouraged them to let Antigone be their guide as they began their Model UN negotiations. “If you know that a policy is wrong, don’t be afraid to say so, and to fight for what you believe,” I told them.

I urged them not to let artificial boundaries like nation, race, class, religion or gender cloud their vision of what is needed to succeed in the goal of making human society safer, more nurturing, and more sustainable for us all.

“It is a deeply flawed, damaged world you will all soon be stepping out into as young adults,” I said.  “We live in a time of accelerated change and unprecedented transition.  None of us knows what lies around the bend.  But we do know that no matter what, we will be better off if we work proactively to overcome narrow national self-interests and begin to think in planetary terms—and not just about human interests, but in terms of the good of the entire web of life of which we are a part.”

Our only chance at changing the way we do business as a civilization, I said,  rests with our ability to successfully communicate with one another–to use the powers of “speech and wind-swift thought” commended by the Chorus of Antigone. 

What we need are not the stylized battles of debate, but the true, open-hearted communication of consensus building, where all viewpoints are listened to respectfully, and all positions are judged both on their own merits and on how well they’ll contribute to the collective goal of making the world a better place.

As I stepped away from the podium, I felt sad that I had to lay such a heavy burden on these bright young people, who through no fault of their own have inherited a planet in such disarray.

But I also felt the surge of hope that always rises again with each new generation.  Maybe this generation will be the one to turn off the beaten path and forge a new relationship with our planetary home.  Perhaps they will be able to resist the centripetal pull towards conformity.

As they all filed out of the room to take up their places at the Model UN negotiating tables, my heart went with them.  They are our last best hope.


Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?

Last night I participated in a panel discussion on Virginia Woolf and Margaret Mead called “Who’s Afraid of Women(‘s) Writing,” with Bard College of Simon’s Rock colleagues Maryann Tebben and Asma Abbas.

We were talking about how women’s writing is often oppositional, representing an outsider’s point of view to male-dominated mainstream discourse, whatever the discipline.

One of the students in the audience asked whether women’s writing would therefore always be reactionary, simply responding to the dominant rather than staking new ground.

I have been thinking about that question all day, off and on.

What I answered at the time was that while women’s writing is often a response to the dominant discourse, it also goes off in its own directions, which are not simply reactions to the mainstream, but rather true departures.

Of course, all writing occurs in dialogue with other writers, so even a departure is part of a larger conversation.  But I do believe that women, as outsiders, have something unique to contribute to any conversation.

Indeed, it is staggering to think of how impoverished literature, philosophy, history and all the other disciplines have been (and still are) in cultures where women have not been allowed to add our voices to the chorus.

Worst of all is that so few people (read: men) even noticed our absence.

I can recall so many times when have I had to fight for the inclusion of texts by women in our General Education curriculum at Simon’s Rock, arguing with colleagues who could say, with a sad shake of the head, that it was just too bad that women had never written any great, canonical literature.  For the past 20 years, out of the 16 required texts in our Gen Ed canon, which stretches from Gilgamesh to Achebe, only three are by women–though as of this year, after much lobbying, the ratio has finally improved slightly.

First deny women literacy and keep those few who do manage to become literate tightly locked in the private realm.  Then look back over history and note complacently that, as Woolf has the “odious Mr. Tansley” tell the artist Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse, “women can’t write, women can’t paint.”

In our time and place, young women now outnumber young men in higher education, and no one would dare to argue that women are innately less intelligent and talented than men.

But still, women in the U.S. earn 78 cents on the male dollar, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we still shoulder more responsibility for housework and child care even when we work fulltime.

Women are still valued more highly as ornaments and service workers than as autonomous creative agents, and we still have to struggle harder to make our voices heard, especially if what we have to say is not what the mainstream wants to hear.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe worries that her painting will be rolled up and thrown under a couch to gather dust.  Today, women still seem to have less self-confidence than men, perhaps because we’ve absorbed the prevailing ethos that considers a strong woman to be a “ball-breaker” or a “bitch on wheels.”

As MaryAnn Baenninger, President of the College of St. Benedict, wrote in a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, studies continue to show thatwomen underestimate their abilities and express lower levels of self-confidence than their abilities suggest. Men overestimate their abilities and express higher levels of confidence than their abilities warrant. This difference arrives with them as first-year students and leaves with them as seniors. When I talk about this, or I hear researchers describe this finding, the audience always chuckles (boys will be boys, after all).”

Baenninger concludes that while American women “have access to just about every educational opportunity and every career…access doesn’t guarantee outcomes. A gendered culture, mostly in unconscious ways, limits women’s expectations for themselves and our expectations for them.”

In other words, our gender role conditioning as women too often tends to silence us, while amplifying the voices of our brothers.

Soon after the great poet Audre Lorde was diagnosed with the cancer than would eventually kill her, she gave an address at the 1977 Modern Language Association annual convention in Chicago, called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” later published in the collection Sister Outsider.

In thinking back over her life, she said, “what I most regretted were my silences.”

“In the cause of silence,” she continued, “each of us draws the face of her own fear–fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment….But most of all we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live….That visibility which makes us most vulnerable…is also the source of our greatest strength.

“Because the machine will try to grind us into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.  We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

What we need to do, she said, is to “learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

So many women today are still feeling the same fear and insecurity Lorde wrote about in 1977.  So many of us will go through our entire lives not daring to utter the truths we can hardly bring ourselves to acknowledge even in our most private thoughts.

In the same way that the richness of the Earth is diminished every time a species is lost, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant to the bigger ecological tapestry, the great canvases of literature, philosophy, science and all the other disciplines are impoverished and dulled when 50% of the population is not enthusiastically welcomed into the conversation.

Yes, we women can have our own conversations, outside the male-dominated mainstream.  There’s always “women’s writing.”  But what we should really be striving for is what Virginia Woolf called “androgynous writing,” where the masculine and feminine energies are brought together in a fecund explosion of cross-pollinating difference.

As Lorde put it so memorably in another of her important essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.  Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening.”

Maybe there will come a time when interdependency and androgyny will be the accepted standard of gender relations.  Until then, we still need to meet periodically and consider questions like “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?” and why? and at what cost?


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