Saturday, February 17, 2007

A quiet, powerful story of liberation

"No Strangers Here Today," a collaboration between Portland performance artist Susan Banyas and jazz musician David Ornett Cherry, is storytelling at its purest and most powerful.

Banyas' narrative, punctuated by gesture and movement, traces the story of Elizabeth Conard Edwards, Banyas' great-great grandmother, who helped fugitive slaves flee to Canada during the Civil War.

Banyas tells the story sparingly and respectfully, occasionally stepping aside to put events in the southern Ohio Quaker community in historical context. In doing so, she invokes voices of freedom, including those of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Lewis and Henry David Thoreau.

Cherry's music quietly, yet movingly, frames the tale of one Quaker woman's contribution to the "Underground Railroad," a hallowed chapter in American history.

Sadly, as Banyas points out, much of the nation's history is stained with injustice and cruelty, from slavery itself to atrocities in Iraq.

But Banyas' telling of Edward's story shines like a lamp for us today. It is like a lantern used in the play—a light that guided fugitives across the Ohio River and out of oppression 150 years ago.

"No Strangers Here Today" continues at the Interstate firehouse Cultural Center through Sunday, Feb. 18, when there will be performances at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Visit its web site for more information.

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Hillsdale calls for plan implementer

Don Baack, Hillsdale Neighborhood Association president, is asking that the new city budget include money to pay for a part-time "Town Center Plan implementer" for Hillsdale.

A delegation of "plan implementers" from Vancouver, B.C. visited Hillsdale last fall and impressed Hillsdale leaders with their work in helping neighborhoods.

Baack's request would pay for an implementer to be in Hillsdale one day a week to move forward parts of the Hillsdale Plan, which was passed in 1997.

The implementer could work with other Portland town centers on the other days of the week. The job also would entail working with other non-Portland government entities such as the county, Tri-Met, Portland Public Schools and Metro.

Baack cited several Hillsdale projects that need to be moved forward including:

• Sunset Triangle. A master plan is needed for the triangular residential area north of Capitol Highway. "Utilities, streets and pedestrian pathways are the major issues in addition to suitable housing styles to fit the community and needs of the community," Baack said in a message to the neighborhood board.

• Hillsdale Plaza. Several issues need to be worked out to create the plaza, including site ownership and funding. The plaza would provide year-round shelter for the Hillsdale Farmers Market, and amphitheater and civic plaza.

• Undergrounding utilities. Renewed effort is needed to remove the streetscape blight of wires and transformers in the Town Center. A start needs to be made around the new Watershed Housing project, now under construction.

• Transportation issues. Safe pedestrian routes, including new sidewalks, are still in great need.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Looking at Evil?

A friend has sent some photos that show our new "enemy" and their capital city, Tehran.

He thought we should all know exactly the kind of "Evil" we are up against.

The accompanying music is by Yussuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.

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Poleaxed in Hillsdale

Last week I joined four Portland General Electric (PGE) employees near the site of the new Watershed Senior Housing building, which is under construction.

We had gathered in the biting cold to get a PGE cost estimate to underground utilities from in front of the building to the east property line of Papa John’s Pizza, a distance of 150 feet.

City Commissioner Sam Adams had wanted to know the cost, necessary information if we are to ever start cleaning up the overhead blight in the town center. Adams, mind, has made no promises. Still, we can hope....

Anyway, when our group began talking, the PGE delegation announced that the cost would be $250 per linear foot. That included the works—trenching, conduit, underground vaults etc.

Of course that would be PGE’s cost to the City. Comcast and Qwest would have costs as well, but the major part of the work would be done by PGE, a privately owned utility that owns the poles.

The $250 number surprised me, because eight years ago, a group of us who studied undergrounding for the City put the high end cost at $100 per linear foot.

But times, and costs, change.

Using a range finder, a PGE engineer determined the distance, half the length of a football field.

The $250 per linear foot figure and the 150 feet led logically to a stunningly simple result: $37,500.


Not so fast.

The leader of the PGE delegation began to scratch his head. Studying the overhead blight, he looked doubtful and tetchy. He was clearly unhappy with such simple math.

He asked if we wanted to underground the new light pole wires on Bertha Court too. They probably could be done fairly simply by boring a conduit line under the sidewalk rather than trenching and tearing up the pavement.

Sure, I said. “The vision is to get rid of the wires—all of them.”

More uneasiness. He had out his calculator now. I have no idea what he was tapping into it—and still don’t.

Finally he said, “I’m going to have to give you a different, more realistic figure. One we can live with.”

Prepare yourself, I thought. “OK, what is it?” I invited.

“It’s somewhere between $100,000 and $120,000.”

It was cold. We had been standing around for 45 minutes. The new numbers must have numbed me too. The man clearly was in no mood to argue. He looked vaguely pained. Besides, what do I, an undergraduate history major, know about the cost of undergrounding utilities except what I had learned 45 minutes before, some quaint notion about $250/linear foot.

Adams had wanted to know the PGE estimate and I wrote him the figure, with no editorializing. (Now, nine days later, he still hasn't acknowledged my e-mail and the number.)

In the day or two following the meeting in the cold, the whole experience gnawed at me.

In the course of 45 minutes, the PGE estimate had TRIPLED!

Better now than later, I guess. (Think OHSU tram) But then it occurred to me that time had gone by since we met in the cold with the range finder and calculators.

Where are the costs today? Where would they be tomorrow?

Could they be tripling every 45 minutes?

I am prepared to believe anything...and nothing.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Quaker in the back of the room

Before I began attending Quaker meetings in the mid-Sixties, I was an “almost-Unitarian.”

When I returned from civil rights work in Mississippi in 1964, the Unitarians were among the most eager to learn of my experiences there.

To this day, as they say, “some of my best friends are…” Unitarians.

So when one of those friends told me that the congregation of the First Unitarian Church here in Portland was meeting to consider replacing “just war” theory for “pacificism” as its guide for responding to war, I accepted her invitation to observe.

A large downstairs room was packed. I purposely sat in the back with the coffee urns, carrot sticks and cheese dip.

The minister welcomed everyone, noting that the meeting was the largest of its kind ever for the congregation. Then the group dove into respectful but intense debate. An advocate for a “pacificist” position spoke, followed by one for the “just war” stance.

Clearly George W. Bush’s militarism had prompted a deep and growing concern.

We next broke into small discussion groups to try to allow each person to speak and to measure opinion.

Five neighboring Unitarians gathered me into their group. I introduced myself as a Quaker but excused myself from discussion or voting.

They would have none of it. They wanted to hear what I had to say. I reluctantly agreed to share my perspective but only after I had listened to them.

At the end of its discussion, the little group voted, feeling that they had to choose one side or the other. They were divided.

Then they turned to me. I began by saying what all Quakers do…I represent only myself, not all Quakers. That said, Quakers hold to a “Peace Testimony” grounded “…in the virtue of that life and power that (takes) away the occasion of all wars,” in the words of Quaker founder George Fox.

Early Quakers, invoking Christ’s teachings, put their conviction clearly: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any end or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world.”

But Quakers also believe that each person needs to seek that “still, small voice within” to decide matters of conscience. While most Friends, as we call ourselves, have chosen to object “conscientiously” to war, a few have chosen to fight. After 9/11, some, most notably Scott Simon, a Quaker and an NPR "Weekend Edition" host, publicly broke with the testimony.

The important point, I explained, is that Quakers, unlike Unitarians, do not begin by analyzing armed conflict through an intellectual “Just War” screen. Our litmus, if it can be called that, begins with cleaving to peace for as long as each of us can or will.

When the discussion groups reported to the whole group, the congregation was also torn. In a final show of hands, a substantial majority deemed the entire deliberation to be an exercise in “false dichotomy.”

The Unitarians’ struggle cast new light on my own Quaker beliefs. Quakers have a deep conviction about peace. It seems impossible for anyone to have such a conviction about “Just War.” The Unitarians certainly didn’t, although one man vowed to leave the congregation if it declared itself “pacifist.”

Moreover, if Quakers were to address such a “weighty matter,” they would assuredly have done so “out of worshipful silence.” Quakers conduct all business, even the most mundane, only after first “settling into the silence,” seeking guidance to be found there.
The Unitarians, with no such tradition, threw themselves into debate and discussion.

The Unitarians also seemed to believe that it was important for the congregation to take a position, if it could. And they were willing to vote and count hands. Quakers famously strive for a unified “sense of the meeting” through discussion and reflection, and never through potentially divisive voting.

I came away from the Unitarian meeting feeling that, for all they share with Quakers, particularly on matters of social justice, the Unitarians saw peace from a very different perspective.

Days later I regretted that I had not shared A.J. Muste’s assertion: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Quakers chose that way 350 years ago. It has made all the difference.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Picturing" Peace in Hillsdale

Wilson High School senior Daniel Ronan is a real spark plug for change in our Hillsdale neighborhood. One of his many causes is the peace movement.

Daniel has taken some photos from last Friday's Hillsdale peace vigil and posted them on his Flickr site. When you pass over the site photos with your cursor, his comments pop up next to the pictures. His photo to the right is of a girl whose brother is a Marine in Iraq.

Please join us at Capitol Highway and Sunset Boulevard this Friday evening, and every Friday evening, at 5:30 for our peaceful demonstrations.

For a half hour, we share the message of peace with hundreds of homebound commuters.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On “Uncensored Thoughtlessness”

For years I used this poster as a reminder of the consequences of “thoughtlessness” in my own writing.

But more recently I have studied it for what it says about censorship, “thoughtlessness,” freedom and fear.

More and more, it speaks to our times, and, like them, it is one scary poster.

It was clearly designed to prevent the divulgence of Allied secrets to the Nazi enemy in World War II. It makes the consequences of “unintended thoughtlessness” quite clear: destruction, in this case in the form of an incoming bomb.

But the poster is based on certain assumptions:

• That we know what “thoughtlessness” looks like when we see it.
• That if we don’t, we are willing to turn the determination of “thoughtlessness” over to someone else, namely censors.
• That in the hands of the censors, only “thoughtlessness” will be censored.
• That censors know best.

Some of the assumptions in the poster are revealed by playing with and changing the words.

For instance, what are the results of censored thoughtFULness? In times of war, thoughtfulness can easily fall victim to censorship—even, as we will see, self-censorship—all in the name of national security.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind.

And don’t we need to ask what the result—indeed the VALUE—of UNcensored thoughtFULness is? What would a wartime poster proclaiming that look like?

And finally, what about uncensored thoughtlessness? A lot of what passes as thoughtful is, in reality, thoughtless, although we have been frightened into accepting it as true.

Witness what was accepted as “intelligence” (one of the great Orwellian terms of our time) in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Should it have been “censored”? No. Should it have been rejected? Absolutely, but fear prevented it.

Finally, the most insidious aspect of the poster is that it ultimately calls on us to censor ourselves. It asks us to consider how our thoughts are dangerous in ways we may not know. We are left to speculate. The poster is asking us to do the perverse—to climb inside the heads of our censors, and then censor ourselves.

In short, the poster is advocating self-imposed thought-control based on ignorance—a kind of cannibalism of the mind.

Is that what this soldier in the desert is fighting for?

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Monday, February 12, 2007

On hold, waiting for "boycott" comment

I usually put up a post a day on The Red Electric, but I don't want to detract from the previous post or from my invitation for you to comment. (Stop gawking and write!)

My sources tell me that Portland Public Schools is still negotiating over Coca-Cola's demands, which are excessive in light of the terms of the district's Faustian contract with the giant beverage company.

One thing is for sure: whatever Coca-Cola gets out of this in dollars, it is going to lose several times over in bad publicity.

My "boycott donation" proposal (scroll down to yesterday's post) addresses the school district's financial need, and punishes Coke in the Portland marketplace.

A show of support for the idea by you and others could get Coke to soften its demands. Pass the word....

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Let's make Coke pay for its pay-off

As the Portland School District hand-wrestles with the giant Coca-Cola Company behind closed doors, a few of us have been considering calling a boycott against dozens of Coca-Cola products.

Coke is trying to force its junk beverages back on our schools after agreeing to withdraw them. If the district doesn’t accept, Coke is threatening to sue to the tune of $600,000, the equivalent of the salaries of more than a dozen teachers.

When it comes to boycotting, Coke presents a big, exposed target. Visit the Coca-Cola brand list site to see just how exposed. The list includes Dannon Yoghurt, Odwalla and Minute Maid orange juice. Ever buy those?

There’s no doubt the school district botched its dealings with Coke, so the district needs to swallow its pride, pay off Coke and kick junk beverages out of our schools.

But then we, nearly 600,000 Portland consumers, need to step up and make Coca-Cola Company pay the price by targeted restraint in the supermarket. What we save by not buying Coca-Cola products—at least $600,000—we should donate immediately to an as-yet-to-be-established PPS "Junk-the-Junk-Food Fund."

To measure support for this idea, please comment below. Please indicate a willingness to contribute to the “Junk the Junk Food Fund.” You can pay up when the fund has been established.

Finally, alert others to this site and the chance to comment and pledge.

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