Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Imploring our Elected Officials: Stand Up for Democratic Institutions

February 5, 2017

Dear Senator Collins,

I’m scared. And I need to know you have the backs of myself and fellow Mainers.

I’m a rural Mainer; a gay woman; a state employee; a practicing Catholic; a theater professional with a degree in American Studies. I’ve spent my adult life studying, defending, and practicing American democracy. I’ve served my time both as an elected community official and as an appointed member of municipal committees, as well as a board member for numerous community nonprofit organizations.

Many of the acts of the current administration, in its first two weeks, make me fear not for particular policies, but more importantly for the institution of democracy we hold so dear and proudly.

I am writing to implore you, as Maine’s most senior congressional representative, to find the courage to lead, at this moment in history, with even more integrity than ever before: to take the continuous actions essential to supporting the pillars of our democracy.

There are a majority of voters of both parties who will stand behind you. We must believe our democracy matters to us all, matters more to each of us than partisan alliances and politics. We need your voice of moderation, courage, and integrity now more than ever.

Through you, Maine’s proud legacy of female political leadership, highlighted by Margaret Chase Smith, can stay alive – but only if you are willing to uphold Maine’s values in the face of some of the administration’s current actions.

We look to you to actively and vocally support the following:

1.     An independent Congress and Judiciary, acting in their appropriate roles of checks and balances on Executive branch power;
2.     An independent media, in existence and necessary to provide an additional check and balance on those in power;
3.     Cabinet and Supreme Court nominations of individuals who support and have expertise in government precedence and the departments they have been selected to lead;
4.     Transparency and equity: proper disclosure of and appropriate action on personal financial statements, including President Trump’s tax returns and the holdings of Betsy DeVos, so that Congress and the Judiciary can determine how to handle potentially debilitating and dangerous conflicts of interest that pose threats to our national security.
5.     Policies and programs, such as the the ADA, the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicaid, the NEA, and Public Broadcasting, which help to ensure that every American, regardless of wealth or position, is able to benefit from the basic privileges of being a citizen of or refugee or immigrant to the world’s wealthiest nation.
6.     A compassionate national government that seeks to extend its overwhelming wealth and natural resources to those who continue to suffer worldwide.

It is my hope you will raise your voice in support for these crucial pillars of our democracy; that you will vote and advocate for only those cabinet and Supreme Court nominations of individuals who are well qualified for their intended positions and support long-standing federal precedents; and that you will actively demand financial transparency of all existing and potential federal officials, as well as the steps necessary to eliminate glaring conflicts of interest that damage our democracy and safety.

Senator Collins, I’m scared and I hope you are, too. Belligerent leadership, rife with financial conflicts of interest, disrespect for the balance of powers and a demonstrated disregard for facts and truth endangers our nation. As an elected leader in whom we have placed our trust, you are one of an elite few in a position to stand against these actions.

You are in a difficult position, one in which we ask you to step up and be, at times, in opposition to your party and its President. Your demonstration of such integrity, however, is vital to the preservation of our democracy. Every one of us is needed to build the fair and equitable democracy in which we and the Founders, regardless of their historical limitations, believed. Without your strong voice and leadership, it might be lost: a tragedy of a scale few can even imagine.

Thank you in advance for your leadership and your service on our behalves.

most sincerely,

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What Effective Political Idealism Might Look Like

I wrote most of what follows for Maine’s caucus day on Sunday. I am republishing it here today because I find the increased rhetoric from liberals who support Sanders, as well as his “victory” in Michigan, upsetting.

The increased polarization of the electorate bodes well for no one.

To the many liberals who continue to push for Sanders and to denounce Clinton, I hope you will read this carefully as a cautionary tale. In Maine, the liberals who are crowing about Sanders victories are the exact same people who voted early for Libby Mitchell for Governor in 2010 because she said what they wanted to hear. And the increasingly vitriolic denouncements of Clinton—including those Sanders supporters who say they will not come out to vote for Clinton--indicate only that the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, are wrestling with a body politic that fears a woman in power and is under-educated about how democratic change truly happens.

Like many Mainers and unlike the majority of Americans, I live in a small, rural community.

I know everyone and they know me. Most of us spend a lot of time volunteering - for our schools, ambulance corps, fire departments, community nonprofits and municipal governments - to make our communities work and to encourage them to thrive.

We’re all so wonderfully various! Aging hippies. Young adults coming into their own as entrepreneurs. Middle-aged adults, with or without kids, some activists and some not. Pioneering artists. Fishermen. The elderly retired, the elderly infirm. And across all of these demographics are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. To move the needle forward we have to find common cause with those whose perspectives and beliefs are different from ours. We have to make compromises and deals and know that we can continue to hold our ideals while respecting others and moving toward them for the sake of a bigger, more common good.

The empathy, tolerance and respect required by small community life has traditionally been a hallmark of Maine culture, whose Senators have proudly included Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Margaret Chase Smith alongside George Mitchell, Ed Muskie, and Mike Michaud.

To regain our civility and continue the change that eight years of the Obama administration started, we have to understand that real change happens in the middle ground between us. A sweet spot that neither end of ideology — liberal or conservative — represents. This is why I find the extremely polarized nature of the current Presidential election so depressing — particularly on the liberal side.

The conservatives can deal with their own house. I’m talking about the ways liberals, progressives, Democrats and the like often shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to electoral politics.

It appears, from evidence on the great blogosphere, from Nader’s impact on Florida in 2000 and the many small elections that lead up to that, from our own three-way races for governor in Maine, that few of us have received adequate training on how to be an effective citizen for democratic change, i.e., how to move forward together for the sake of a common good. The evolution of American culture and media have made it far easier to cling to our individual identities and to the ideologies that support those.

Understanding and valuing a common good means that as citizens we are required to move our votes out of the realm of ideas and personalities we "like" or don't like: away from ideology and toward common cause.

This doesn't mean the end of idealism, although it does mean the end of ideology.

I remember my own youthful idealism, when the only things that mattered were our radical beliefs for "a better world" and the sometimes extreme ideologies that pulled us toward these personal utopias. 

I am idealistic for a better world these days in a different way. Oh yes, I absolutely believe we need to deal solidly and effectively with income inequality. Our work for education and against poverty is paramount to me.

Yet based on my experience in community, I am also aware that we have very different ideas about how to achieve these goals. And as an historian, I am very aware that the characteristics that most distinguish American culture from the European models held up by most liberals is that we are a country founded on a tax revolt and with an urban (manufacturing/banking/big government) / rural (agrarian/slaveholding/local control) split at our core (for those who don’t know the history of our two parties, start with Hamilton on Broadway!).

My idealism today is for a civil, democratic world in which we respect each other in all our (conservative/liberal urban/rural black/white male/female etc. etc.) differences, and demonstrate that respect by not only finding common cause but rolling up our sleeves and getting to work with those with whom we disagree. It is an idealism against ideology and for commonality--or community. For liberals, that means that Republican community members often have good ideas, too. It is an idealism for the sweet spot in the middle, not for a tenacious clinging to either end.

This idealism informs my decisions about for whom to vote. To be effective, our votes have to represent our hopes that change is possible for all of us: not just socialists on the left and Tea Partyers on the right. Not just for the usual types of authority we've been taught to trust (white, male) and not just against those whose solutions we consider "crazy." Our votes have to represent our knowledge that the middle ground is not only respectful but effective in moving us toward the better world for which we are all crying out.

Ideology, as advanced through rhetoric, is about ideas, not people. One can favor the idea of increased national security and be deaf to its impact on refugees. One can be opposed to income inequality and be oblivious to the the fact that change requires bringing vested interests along for the ride.

If leadership is only inspiring others to follow a shared vision, then both Trump and Sanders are performing beautifully in this race for President. But isn't leadership also about knowing how to work with those who disagree with you? Acknowledging the validity of their beliefs, fears, and solutions, and being willing to meet them half way to get the job done?

Our current American “idealism” for ideologies on the far left and far right bodes ill for the long term future of our democracy, because a democracy depends on voters willing to give up individual positions to ensure better governance for our common world. Through our behavior and rhetoric and public education system, through the mass media and social media, we are educating our young people only to follow their individual hearts and beliefs. These are important, but not all that make an effective voting electorate.

Yes: I continue to believe that the ends keep pulling the center forward, and are therefore always necessary. I am glad Bernie Sanders entered this race to do just that. I also know, after advocating for women's, gay, and economic rights for 35 years, that real change doesn't happen in “one fell swoop.” It does not surprise me that Sanders support is heaviest among white, young liberals; demographics who rarely question what their own privilege really means, or how it takes shape in the world. I support Hilary because she shows more respect for and understanding of how to work with my fellow community members, and can get the job done.

I’m crossing my fingers that we can rally behind her, and that liberals as well as conservatives don’t again shoot American progressivism in the foot by clinging to ideologically-based voting. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

36 Hours in the Arts in Maine with NEA Chairman Jane Chu

From The Telling Room to Spindleworks and the Bowdoin International Music Festival in 3 Short Days

NEA Chairman Jane Chu greets members of the Somali
Bantu Community Association, recipients of NEA funds
via the Maine Arts Commission's grant programs
In less than 36 hours you can get a grand picture of the vitality and breadth of the arts in Maine. Here's a quick tour courtesy of last week's visit by National Endowment for the Arts chairman Jane Chu

I had the great pleasure of accompanying chairman Jane Chu and Maine Arts Commission Director Julie Richard to Brunswick on day 3 of the chairman's junket here. Hopefully many of you were able to attend the packed Town Hall meeting she conducted Monday night in Portland.

Thanks to the office of Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, the Chairman visited NEA grant award winners in Portland on Monday, August 10; in Waterville and Lewiston on Tuesday; and Brunswick Wednesday. Details of that day below, but in the meantime here are the great organizations that Chairman Chu visited -- and you can, too!

Day 1, August 10, Portland: The Telling Room, Terra Motto/Veterans Story Exchange, Portland Museum of Art
Day 2, August 11, Waterville: Maine Film Center
Day 2 continued, Lewiston: Bates Dance Festival, Bates College Museum of Art, Somali Bantu Community Association

Julie Richard, Executive Director, Maine Arts Commission;
Jane Chu, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts;
Liz McGhee, Program Director, Spindleworks;
Spindleworks artist, seated, and teaching artist.
We started Day 3: Brunswick at the ever-amazing Spindleworksa non profit art center for adults with disabilities, where one of the most famous lines ever written or spoken is “HANDICAP, I HEARD ABOUT IT BUT I AIN’T GOT IT NOW," by participating artist Rita Langlois. As intrepid Program Director Liz McGhee walked us through the full and busy artist studios, they showed us their excellent work and described their inspiring days of art making at Spindleworks. We reluctantly tore ourselves away from the Spindleworks Gallery without buying armloads of art. You can purchase Spindleworks art online or at their new Spin Off Studio in Gardiner, but I truly recommend visiting and perhaps getting a chance to meet one of the 40+ artists who use these studios every week. 

We hiked up Maine Street and were lucky enough to greet briefly Bowdoin College's incoming president, Clayton Rose, who showed off Nathaniel Hawthorne's desk.
Then off to greet Peter Simmons and the staff of the Bowdoin International Music Festival whose violin instructor, Frank Huang, was recently named concert master for the New York Philharmonic--a testament to the amazing quality of work and student experiences offered by the festival. A quick tour of one of the Festival's musical homes, the beautiful Studzinski Recital Hall (where I swam as a Bowdoin student, as it was formerly Curtis Pool) and off we swept to see, last but not least, the renovated and re-energized Bowdoin College Museum of Art, now under the guidance of curators Anne and Frank Goodyear. If you didn't see my previous posts re the unexpected Night Vision exhibit, or the innovative new work now on display there from photographer Abelardo Morrell, check them out here.
Whew. You CAN do this, too--and I highly recommend it. Maine arts and artists in all areas -- whether folk or traditional artists, or those who hang in museums -- are of international quality. And they are right here in our very own, very beautiful backyard.
A final quick note re NEA Chairman Chu. This fall she is poised to announce her signature leadership initiative, Creativity Connects. Earlier this year she launched the Tell Us Your Story to celebrate this year's 50th anniversary of the NEA and said,
"We have an opportunity to start a new dialogue on the ways in which the arts—and the ways the NEA supports the arts—are an essential component of our everyday lives," says Chu. "Although many may not realize it, the arts actively intersect with areas such as the economy, human development, and community vitality. The arts and artists who are funded and supported by the NEA are an integral part of the solution to the challenges we face in all parts of our society."
We say YES.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Lincoln Festival Chorus 35th Season Performance

Soprano Suzanne Nance soloed with the Lincoln Festival Chorus in Boothbay Harbor and Newcastle, Maine this weekend in an all-Mozart concert including the Solemn Vespers.
This is a story about how great it is to get out of your own head/hood and into the world to see what others are doing: a kind of wake-up call for the way we need to break and cross boundaries in Maine arts.

There is a lot of beautiful, high quality performance work happening by and in Maine communities, and a great example of this is the Lincoln Arts Festival in the Boothbay region. The Lincoln Festival Chorus and the Mozart Mentors Orchestra conducted by maestro Anthony Antolini (disclaimer: yes, another fellow Bowdoin grad as well as member of the Bowdoin faculty) gave a fabulous, all-Mozart concert in Newcastle tonight of the Ave verum corpus, written in 1791, less than six months before the composer's death; and Vesparae solemnes de confessore from 1780. Both pieces featured soprano soloist Suzanne Nance, whom followers of this blog have seen frequently at Opera House Arts.

We rarely have truly hot days and evenings in Maine, and today was one of these. The beautiful St. Patrick's hall in Newcastle, where tonight's concert was held, had no AC and both audience and performers were swabbing our sweat from our faces. The maestro shed his white tie to reveal strong green John Deere suspenders over his soaked shirt.

Antolini mentioned to me after the performance that he was extremely grateful for the Maine Arts Commission's support of a world premiere commission he conducted in May, Elizabeth Brown's To Walk Humbly for theremin, piano, and chorus. Brown is composer in residence at Monclair State University in New Jersey. Her music, which has been heard around the world, is informed by her performances on flute, shakuhachi, theremin, and dan bau (Vietnamese monochord). It is always a thrill for the Arts Commission to support the world premieres of original performances, especially of contemporary classical works, right here in Maine.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Faith Becoming Flesh: Martin Luther King Day 2013

What does it mean to take our faith into the world? To not simply proclaim it, but to follow the examples of the world’s great spiritual leaders—Christ, Buddha, Mohammed—and give flesh to our beliefs?
In the U.S. of modern history, few have exemplified such “faith in action” better than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I continue to find the national holiday in honor of King the most moving and inspiring day of the year.
And right now, on this Martin Luther King Day 2013, I’m thinking of One Billion Rising on February 14, and the National March on Washington for Gun Control next Saturday, January 26.
King’s message, like the great spiritual leaders’ before him, was “simple:” love thy neighbor, and pay particular attention to those who are poor, afflicted, and oppressed. The making of these words flesh continues to be complicated, and King’s execution of his faith was no less complex than those who came before--or than ours must be each day.
While best remembered for his civil rights victories, it is King’s much broader battle that demands our current attention. His great 1963 March on Washington, forever memorialized in his “I Have A Dream” speech, dramatized the plight of America’s poor and catalyzed President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation. King supported the rights of low-wage garbage workers in Memphis; he actively protested the Vietnam War.
Johnson proposed The War on Poverty (we have this legislation to thank for federal programs such as Head Start) in response to a national poverty rate, in 1960, of just under 19%. During President Clinton’s tenure, the poverty rate reached a low of 11.3%, but by the time of the 2010 census it had climbed back to 15.1%.
In 50 years, we’ve shaved less than 4% off our national number of people living in poverty. This is 15.1% of individual U.S. citizens living on less than $11,344.
Whether or not you support the Occupy Wall Street movement (or for that matter the Arab Spring revolutions), with 1% of our population accounting for 24% of all income, we have not, as a nation, solved the problem of how to equitably distribute resources so that everyone, including children and the elderly, has enough to eat nutritiously and live warmly, safely, and healthily.
So when President Obama, in his inaugural address, connected King’s actions at Selma to those of women struggling for equality at Seneca Falls and gay people fighting for our rights and lives at Stonewall, he’s reminding us that for any of us to be free, there must be equity for all—and equity, despite our religious beliefs and faith, does not come easily. It requires action. It demands that faith be made flesh.
Just days before his assassination, King was planning a second March on Washington, and said that to create real change for America, “We are coming to demand that the government addresses itself to the problem of poverty. It is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”
Poverty and oppression come in many shapes and sizes, and so there are nearly limitless opportunities to join together and put our faith to work. One billion women—mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, and friends, one of every three people on our planet of seven billion—will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. One Billion Rising, the largest day of action in the history of Eve Ensler’s V-Day movement, is a promise that we will rise up with women and men worldwide to say the violence ends now. Join us at the Opera House this Valentine’s Day, Thursday, February 14, and put your faith to work on behalf of ending violence against women. Or take yourself to Washington, D.C., next Saturday, January 26, to work towards lessening gun violence in the U.S. by demanding legislation to better protect all of us from the “overkill” of a culture in which a strident insistence on individual rights often works to the detriment of our communities and the most disenfranchised among us.
Can we truly call ourselves a nation of faith when so much of our legislative and economic time is spent struggling only for our own individual well being? Not in my book. Together, we can make change, but to do so requires action in addition to belief. It requires, as all the great religions of our world proclaim, faith made flesh.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
    and her salvation like a burning torch. – Isaiah 62:1