Organization of the week: Mural Arts Program

January 25, 2010

There is a fabulous organization in Philadelphia, PA, called Mural Arts Program. Their mission statement says that they unite “artists and communities through a collaborative process, rooted in the traditions of mural-making, to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives.” They organize community and school murals, art education programs, restorative justice projects, and other special projects. Their programs bring together people in the community, giving them a common goal to work towards together, with powerful results for the individuals and the community:

The Mural Arts Program includes the community in every step of the mural-making process, from selecting a theme to selecting a muralist, and from collaborating on a design to celebrating the mural’s creation. This way the mural fulfills its intention by becoming a living part of the community long after the project is completed.

We strive to have our mural projects represent collaboration. The mural-making process builds lasting community relationships, bringing together people whose paths might otherwise never have crossed. When diverse community members have joined together to promote the community, the finished mural celebrates their collective creative force.

Community-building, as this program does, is one of the foundations of peace. People who work together on one project are more likely to work together in the future. To conclude, here is a quote about the program from a muralist:

I’ve seen murals bring people together. They don’t solve all of a neighborhood’s problems, but they can bring new life and energy to the people who live there. They can be a catalyst for change.

—Donald Gensler, Muralist

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Book review: A Short History of Progress

January 22, 2010

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

My thoughts on A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, can be summarized as follows: first, that everyone should read it, and second, that it triggered a minor existential crisis. Why, you might ask, do I think everyone should read a book that has the potential to trigger an existential crisis? Well, first of all, not everyone will react the same way that I did (the are other things going on in my life right now that likely contributed to my existential crisis; if that hadn’t been the case this book may not have triggered one). But in fact I think everyone should read it precisely because of its power to make you think about and question the meaning of existence.

Essentially Wright takes you a giant step back from your daily life and gives you a bird’s-eye perspective on human civilization and progress. He looks at four case studies of civilizations in human history that continued down the path of “progress” to the point of collapse. Over and over, humans have followed the pattern of overusing their environment until it can no longer sustain their numbers, continuing towards collapse even when it should be clear that they are living unsustainably. His point is that we are currently following the same exact pattern – our growth is accelerating in a clearly unsustainable manner, and we are causing environmental change that will be our downfall. However, there is a crucial difference from past civilization collapses: during the time periods of the cases he presents, there were many mostly isolated civilizations on earth, and the collapse of one did not significantly impact humans living on the other side of the world. Now, all humans are a part of one big civilization, and if it collapses it will impact all living beings on the entire earth.

Before I reached the end of the book, I started feeling that all our attempts to reverse climate change and prevent civilization collapse are both helpless and pointless. In the grand scheme of things, why does it really matter if our civilization falls apart or not? Why does it even matter if the human species continues to exist or not? Someday it will not. Someday the entire earth will fall into the sun. Deep in my heart I feel that it does matter, but I lost my grasp of why.

As I said, these questions arose for me before I finished the book. As it turns out, Wright addresses some of these very questions in the last chapter. His answers were interesting, although I think that ultimately each of us needs to figure out answers for ourselves and find our own meaning:

The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one’s interest. It is a suicide machine… I honestly don’t know what… the hard men and women of Big Oil and the far right… think they are doing. They have children and grandchildren who will need safe food and clean air and water, and who may wish to see living oceans and forests. Wealth can buy no refuge from pollution; pesticides sprayed in China condense in Antarctic glaciers and Rocky Mountain tarns. And wealth is no shield from chaos, as the surprise on each haughty face that rolled from the guillotine made clear.

Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-captalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.

Wright concludes with a strong call to learn from and avoid the mistakes of the past:

We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.

Now is our last chance to get the future right.

A Short History of Progress is a compelling and important book. One way you can look at the present human situation is that we can either choose to change now and become a sustainable civilization, or we will be forced to change later by unpleasant circumstances out of our control. We have the opportunity to learn from the past, but will we take advantage of it? I believe humans are capable of much more than we currently demonstrate, and if we do not make the necessary changes now we will be failing our own capabilities.

I cannot more highly recommend A Short History of Progress. To conclude, here are a few more insightful passages:

At the gates of the colosseum and the concentration camp, we have no choice but to abandon hope that civilization is, in itself, a guarantor of moral progress.

Civilizations have developed many techniques for making the earth produce more food – some sustainable, others not. The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.

Capitalism lures us onward like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet.

We should therefore be wary of technological determinism, for it tends to underestimate cultural factors and reduce complex questions of human adaptation to a simplistic “We’re the winners of history, so why didn’t others do what we did?” We call agriculture and civilization “inventions” or “experiments” because that is how they look to hindsight. But they began accidentally, a series of seductive steps down a path leading, for most people, to lives of monotony and toil. Farming achieved quantity at the expense of quality: more food and more people, but seldom better nourishment or better lives. People gave up a broad array of wild foods for a handful of starchy roots and grasses – wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, maize. As we domesticated plants, the plants domesticated us. Without us, they die; and without them, so do we. There is no escape from agriculture except into mass starvation, and it has often led there anyway, with drought and blight. Most people, throughout most of time, have lived on the edge of hunger – and much of the world still does.

The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.

[T]errorism cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the cause. Violence is bred by injustice, poverty, inequality, and other violence. This lesson was learnt very painfully in the first half of the twentieth century, at a cost of some 80 million lives. Of course, a full belly and a fair hearing won’t stop a fanatic; but they can greatly reduce the number who become fanatics.

Archeology is perhaps the best tool we have for looking ahead, because it provides a deep reading of the direction and momentum of our course through time: what we are, where we have come from, and therefore where we are most likely to be going. Unlike written history, which is often highly edited, archeology can uncover the deeds we have forgotten, or have chosen to forget.


Quote of the week

January 20, 2010

From Small is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher:

It is of little use trying to suppress terrorism if the production of deadly devices continues to be deemed a legitimate employment of man’s creative powers. Nor can the fight against pollution be successful if the patterns of production and consumption continue to be of a scale, a complexity, and a degree of violence which, as is becoming more and more apparent, do not fit into the laws of the universe, to which man is just as much subject as the rest of creation. Equally, the chance of mitigating the rate of resource depletion or of bringing harmony into the relationships between those in possession of wealth and power and those without is non-existent as long as there is no idea anywhere of enough being good and more-than-enough being evil.


Organization of the week: African Leadership Academy

January 18, 2010

I have said on this blog before that I think education is crucial to creating a more peaceful world. I generally mean education for the masses, but in this post I want to highlight an organization that is focused on educating the next generation of leaders in Africa: African Leadership Academy. Their mission is “To transform Africa into a peaceful and prosperous continent by developing and supporting its future leaders.” They accept applications from high-school age students across Africa and select (on merit alone) approximately the top 100 to attend their innovative two-year program. They prep the students to attend the top universities in the world, but with a focus on leadership development, entrepreneurial training, and an understanding of African issues. From their website:

African Leadership Academy was founded in 2004 with the belief that ethical leadership is the key to transforming the African continent. Founders Fred Swaniker, Chris Bradford, Peter Mombaur, and Acha Leke sought to create an institution that would develop, connect, and support those individuals who will lead the continent toward a peaceful and prosperous future. In the two years that followed, the founding team built a powerful network of advisors and developed a robust, sustainable operating model for the Academy, a world-class, pan-African secondary institution on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Their five founding beliefs are: address the underlying causes of problems, the power of one, the power of youth, the need for pan-African cooperation, and entrepreneurship is fundamental to growth. The core values that form a foundation for their program are integrity, curiosity, humility, compassion, diversity, and excellence. I admire the mission, beliefs, and values of African Leadership Academy and think it has the power to help bring peace to the world.


Quote of the week

January 13, 2010

I collect quotes and quite a few are relevant to the topic of this blog, so I thought I’d start another weekly theme. Although I will usually post the quotes without added commentary, I welcome discussion in the comments!

From Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng:

It seemed that they really thought I would change my mind simply because they had beaten me up. But then, people who resort to brutality, must believe in the power of brutality.


Organization of the week: First Place for Youth

January 11, 2010

First Place for Youth is a non-profit in Oakland, CA, dedicated to helping youth in foster care transition to living on their own. The California foster care system kicks children out as soon as they turn 18, leaving them to find their way in the world on their own, without the family-based support system that other 18-year-olds have. The numbers for these youth are stark, as stated on First Place for Youth’s website:

Without housing, education or emotional support, 65 percent of foster youth will face imminent homelessness, 20 percent will be arrested or incarcerated, 46 percent will complete high school and only 3 percent will graduate from college.

First Place for Youth has been successful at defying these negative statistics and helping many youth transition to adulthood:

First Place for Youth pioneered four innovative programs designed to defy negative statistics among former foster youth by providing an innovative mix of:
* permanent housing with a graduated subsidy
* employment training and job development
* education assessment and support
* transformative emotional support and community building

Over the last decade, First Place has had a profound impact on our youth participants. When compared to other transition age foster youth, First Place youth are:
* five times less likely to experience homelessness
* three times less likely to give birth before the age of 21
* three times less likely to be arrested
* six times more likely to be enrolled in college
* twice as likely to graduate from high school
* twice as likely to be employed

It is inspiring to me to learn about programs like this. Youth who are in foster care already have troubled lives, and badly need this sort of support to help steer them in a positive direction. It is an important way to strengthen our communities and decrease violence and crime. I am glad that there are wonderful programs like First Place for Youth out there!


Organization of the week: Shajar-e-Ilm

January 4, 2010

I’m going to try again with an “organization of the week” series. I really like the idea and it is a good way for me to make note of the various inspiring organizations I come across. The day of the week may change but for now it will be Monday – to give you a nice inspired start to your week!

Shajar-e-Ilm (which means “Tree of Knowledge”) is a young and hopeful organization doing powerful work to educate girls in war-torn areas of Pakistan. From their website:

Shajar-e-Ilm began as a group of young students and activists who banded together to promote female education in Swat Valley, in the backdrop of the militancy which had banned female education in the area. After an overwhelming response to its first project Shajar-e-Ilm is now on its way to becoming a registered organization, with the goal of furthering education in Swat Valley and Pakistan more generally.
Shajar-e-Ilm’s core belief is that education is not simply literacy, but the ability to think and act progressively, creatively and compassionately. Shajar-e-Ilm encourages students to be creative and different; it provides them with networks of support and mentorship which they can use to reach for their greatest ambitions for themselves and their societies.

They have a blog to which I have just subscribed. I believe strongly that this sort of education is critical to peace and I hope Shajar-e-Ilm succeeds and continues its great work for a long time.