In Review :: Conversations over the Line


Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism by bell hooks & Amalia Mesa-Bains

Getting to Scale by Jill Bamburg

Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community by K. Pranis, B. Stuart & M. Wedge

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil directed by Faith Morgan


cover of Homegrown
HOMEGROWN: Engaged Cultural Criticism
by bell hooks & Amalia Mesa-Bains
South End Press Collective, 2006, 145 pages, $15.00
reviewed by Patrisia Gonzales

In my great-great grandmothers' era, black Muscogee Indians found refuge in our ancestral Kickapoo lands in Mexico. In my great grandparents' time, Indians (read: “and/or Mexicans”) hid escaped slaves in Texas. In my grandparents' and even my mother's era, black doctors and dentists tended the illnesses and toothaches of the children in our family when white doctors wouldn't. And then there are the hushed stories of the African presence in Mexico that many Mexicans want to hide.

All the while, black and brown peoples share the historical consequences of knowing that we are indigenous communities but mostly unable to name our peoples and ancient ones. I've often said if we sat down today and talked about those days when it was so much more obvious how we needed each other, black-brown peoples might get along better.

Sitting down and talking across black-brown lines is exactly what public intellectuals and scholars bell hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains do in their new book, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. The authors suggest that conversation is a radical act and embody that belief in the very format of the book, which is structured as a series of conversations between them on a variety of themes, including family, feminism, multiculturalism, and home.

Homegrown speaks to how black and brown people can talk to each other from their distinct histories and still find common ground, even connectedness. Their conversation is a response to the mass media's obsessions with reporting black-brown conflicts and differences while disregarding how they are distinct cultures that still share many common experiences.

As they discuss their personal histories, we learn that both women are the daughters of “servants.” Like many from their communities, they are formed by the land as migrants and rural families. Hooks shares some powerful stories of how the land reminds people of the true natural order and how “…in the [urban] North there was no contact with the natural world to serve as a constant reminder that white people were not all powerful.” Mesa-Bains shares how many Mexican/Chicano families practice traditional medicine based on their knowledge of the land.

Their conversations extend beyond the personal, delving into a broader discussion of black-brown similarities. Their dialogue connects ebonics with bilingualism; Day of the Dead and the recognition in African-American folk culture “that death is imminent, and always around”; and the commodification of both black and brown female bodies as either J-Lo “Hottentots” or the laboring bodies of servants.

In many of their conversations about race, they discuss issues that are still rarely openly discussed, such as internalized racism in both communities, white privilege, and cultural domination. They also distinguish between niche-market multiculturalism and grassroots self-determination. Hooks contrasts the idea of radical self-determined multiculturalism with how dominant society “markets identity” and co-opts diversity, such as ensuring “just enough blacks” for tourists in post-Katrina New Orleans.

In critiquing how culture is expressed visually and through imagery, they delve into the ways that peoples of color outwit cultural domination as well as how they succumb to consumption. Hooks worries about the ability of future generations to engage in radical acts of conversation when youth, and people in general, can't make time to listen.

Mesa-Bains blasts conservatives of color such as Richard Rodriguez, Linda Chavez, Shelby Steele, Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales, and Dinesh D'Souza for being used as discourse regulators, legitimizing reactionary policies on affirmative action, assimilation and even torture.

Both women are frank in their assessment of white privilege, such as the ability to choose the “simple” lifestyle. They also discuss how white privilege allows the dominant culture to appropriate cultural images, such as Frida Kahlo and altar building, yet remain unengaged in the struggles of the cultures from which they arose.

By letting us in on their conversation, hooks and Mesa-Bains show how story-telling can become part of memory, liberation, and self determination. Black and brown people talking to each other and listening—how radical.

Patrisia Gonzales writes “Column of the Americas” with Roberto Rodriguez and authored 'The Mud People: Chronicles, Testimonios & Remembrances' (Chusma House).

Excerpts from Homegrown ::

“When we are committed to self-determination, we recognize that our lives are enhanced when we act in solidarity with other people of color and when we are able to recognize white people who are anti-racist allies in struggle.” —bell hooks

“The language that we used about race and racism has focused on black-white struggle, so that there is a common perception that ‘race' is code for ‘Black'. And ‘racism' is something that happens between Blacks and whites. Latinos have always had a vexed relationship to this rhetoric.” —Amalia Mesa-Bains

cover of Getting to Scale
Getting to Scale
by Jill Bamburg
Berrett-Koehler, 2006, 216 pages, $14.95
reviewed by Fran Korten

Jill Bamburg watched with dismay the sale of three companies: Ben and Jerry's to Unilever, Odwalla to Coca-Cola, and Stonyfields Farm Yogurt to Dannon. These companies were idols of the socially responsible business world and their sale to soulless mega-corporations raised a disturbing question. Is it possible for a mission-driven business to get big without selling out? Bamburg set out to find the answer.

The result of her quest is an eminently readable book that sets out nine compelling lessons for how to grow a mission-driven business without losing its founding values. The book is full of the fresh, grounded voices of 30 entrepreneurs who love their businesses, stick to their values—and have gotten big. Not huge (Bamburg studies no billion-dollar companies), but big enough to have a market impact. You probably buy products from them—companies like Organic Valley, Equal Exchange, Eileen Fisher, Birkenstock, Working Assets, and New Leaf Paper (the paper YES! is printed on).

Disclosure: Jill is a good friend, lives directly above my office, teaches next door at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and is a board member of YES! So, as you can imagine, as I picked up her book, I was nervous that I might not like it.

Fortunately, I absolutely loved this book, partly because it speaks to my own experience and assuages my anxieties about how we run things at YES! One of Bamburg's nine lessons is: “Organic is the way to grow”—a one-thing-leads-to-another approach that contrasts starkly with the “get big fast” mentality that pervades the venture capital world. (Another lesson: Steer clear of the venture capitalists—finance your own growth.) Organic is the way we've grown at YES! But I have wondered if we shouldn't have a grand plan and march toward ambitious targets. Bamburg says no—grow step by step if you want to keep your values. What a relief!

This is a book for anyone who cares about the values of the place they work and the products they buy. We all need products and services and don't want to feel guilty every time we spend a buck. Bamburg says profit and values need not conflict. Our businesses just need to follow the lessons she lays out with clarity and a lot of love for the entrepreneurs whose courage and wisdom so fully inform this book.

Fran Korten is the Executive Director and Publisher of YES! Magazine.

cover of Peacemaking Circles
Peacemaking Circles:From Crime to Community
by Kay Pranis, Barry Stuart & Mark Wedge
Living Justice Press, 2003, 296 pages, $15.00
reviewed by Manitonquat

The United States has more incarcerated people per capita than any other nation. More than two million are in prison, and millions more families of inmates and victims are suffering. But, as prison construction and incarceration are booming, the statistics show a surge in violent crime for 2005. Clearly, the system is not working, but all lawmakers can suggest is even harsher sentences. Is it not a kind of psychosis to keep doing the same thing and expect different results?

Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community presents an innovative way to move beyond the limitations of the current legal system to a community-oriented approach to justice that involves all those affected by the terrible injuries of crime. This process, which evolved out of the First Nation tradition of using Sacred Circles to solve community problems, can heal families devastated by crime and bring the affected community closer together.

Peacemaking Circles accomplish this by shifting the focus of justice from “getting even” to “getting well,” for the offender, the victim, and the community. “[Circles] ask the victims what harm has been done as well as what can repair it and contribute to healing,” the authors write. “By participating in Circles, victims often feel less isolated by the pain caused by the crime and are gradually able to reintegrate with their families and communities.”

The process is beneficial to the offender too. Circles provide many offenders with their first experience of respect earned without violence and of genuine concern and caring by others. Circles also help them realize their potentials and give them hope for the future.

“We treat each other in respectful and ultimately sacred ways because we see each person as part of the whole and indispensable to it,” one participant explained. “We also see ourselves as connected to all other beings, and so what happens to them affects us too. Our connectedness gives us the responsibility to care for each other and to help mend the webs that hold us.”

I have volunteered in this field for over 20 years, establishing Circles in prisons in three states and several other countries, and can attest to their power in reclaiming and restoring people to good lives in their communities. In similar programs I have run for over 20 years in 10 prisons, I know of only four people who returned to prison. In addition, I have often been told what one participant says in this book: “The Circle saved my life. Without it I would be dead by now.”

Peacemaking Circles is a useful manual for anyone wanting to initiate such work, not only for sentencing but in other areas of concern, such as drug abuse, domestic violence, and dealing with youthful offenders and troubled children.

Reading cannot capture the experience of a Circle. You must participate to truly understand. This book shows you how to do that. Most importantly, Peacemaking Circles urges us to become active in transforming our society and shows us how to counteract the isolation of the modern western world and restore real community that fosters our humanity, our creativity, and our ability to heal one another.

Manitonquat (Medicine Story), a Wampanoag elder, is the author of five books, including The Circle Way and Changing the World.

promotional images for The Power of Community

The Power of Community:
How Cuba Survived Peak Oil
Documentary, 2006, Directed by Faith Morgan, The Community Solution, 53 minutes, available on DVD at priced $20.00.
reviewed by Janaia Donaldson

“The Power of Community” is creating excitement in localization groups, and with good reason. In this film, individual Cubans tell us how they responded to an artificially imposed “Peak Oil” in the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union caused the loss of most food and oil imports. Their stories serve as a valuable model for a world facing Peak Oil on a global scale. Cuba's transition to a low-energy society is hopeful and instructive.

Interweaving a cogent overview of global Peak Oil with the story of Cuba's experience, director Faith Morgan outlines the dire consequences of Cuba's energy crisis. Transportation halted. Electricity was available sporadically. Lacking substitutes for fossil-fuel-based farming, food production was devastated. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds. Morgan shows us the innovative responses of the Cuban people. We see city-dwellers planting urban gardens on every available plot, using permaculture and organic farming to reclaim soils destroyed by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These local farmers reconnect with their neighbors and willingly supply free food to elders, schools, workers, and pregnant women.

We also see how Cuba coped with a sudden lack of energy for modern infrastructure. Without fuel for cars, Cubans walked, carpooled, and rode buses. They even massively adopted the bicycle, despite the prior absence of a cycling culture. We also see Cubans creatively reducing energy consumption in their homes and workplaces and implementing small-scale renewable energy projects.

Most of the innovations Morgan presents arose from the Cuban people, but she shows how the government fostered them. To increase food production, the government divided state farms into smaller private farms and cooperatives. With smaller farms and local control, farmers replaced fossil fuels with labor-intensive practices, animal power, and Cuban-developed biopesticides and biofertilizers, resulting in increased per-acre productivity.

To help people survive, the Cuban government even expanded their free, localized medical system.

Cuba adapted, survived, and thrived because they mobilized their entire culture. They made changes requiring cooperation, adaptability, and openness to alternatives. As one Cuban in the film remarks, “When told they needed to reduce energy use, everybody did it.”

Megan Quinn of Community Solution

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