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Cultivating Community Action Through Live Music


It's time for those with a microphone in hand to empower their followers to become part of the solution.

Remember in the 1960’s when music was the counterpart of social activism, during a time of resistance to war and civil rights? Remember when young people all around the US self-organized in their universities and became the driving force behind the civil rights and anti-war movements? In the first six months of 1968, more than 200 major demonstrations took place at 100 colleges and universities across the country, involving more than 40,000 students. People were active and involved. I often ask myself, where did that spark, fire and organization of young people in mass numbers towards issues that affect us all go?

Hundreds to thousands of concerts happen every week throughout the United States and I see most of these nightly events being a place for attendees to escape their mundane week, lose themselves for a night and feel a connection to music and something more powerful than themselves. What if the energy of people coming together for a common interest could be utilized to create change, movements and build community that extends beyond the night-out?

The problems we face today have surpassed controversy and uncertainty. We are seeing the effects of overconsumption and resource exploitation  in land degradation and the endangerment of wildlife, ancient cultures and soil everywhere we look. It is time that everyone become part of the solution and make small changes within their local communities. It’s time for those with a microphone in hand to empower their followers to become part of the solution.

One solution that encompasses the social, environmental and economic crises we face is Permaculture. Permaculture is a practical method of developing ecologically harmonious, efficient and productive systems that can be used by anyone.  It is about designing ways to live in accordance caring for people, caring for the planet, and caring for the future as we design and embrace principles that cultivate whole-system earth stewardship.

This October, The Polish Ambassador steps up to the plate and partners up with a team of permaculture facilitators and community organizers to bring the Pushing Through the Pavement: Permaculture Action Tour to venues in major cities across America. This revolutionary tour will converge local organizations, permaculture groups, sustainability educators, natural builders, and gardeners to bring the know-how and skills to put the principles of permaculture into tangible reality. The audience members at each show will be encouraged to join “Impact Days” on urban sites in between the shows that will be immersions focused on sustainability, food justice, ecological education, and regenerative living practices.

crowdfunding campaign has been launched to raise awareness and funds about this tour. Learn more, watch the video and get excited.

I hope that this tour inspires more artists to get on board with making their concerts more informative, engaging and action-oriented on the issues that we are facing today. I couldn’t think of a better way to get a strong message across to thousands of people!

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The Tea Leaves Don’t Lie


Honest Tea tests the nation’s honesty in its fifth social experiment.

Since 2009, Honest Tea has been examining how trustworthy we are by setting up kiosks containing bottles of tea with an asking price of a dollar. The catch was that no one was at the booths to collect the money, so you could just walk away without paying.

Recently the company set up the kiosks in every state to take a national temperature of our honesty, and came away with some interesting conclusions. By posting undercover employees around the stalls, they were able to find out geographic averages as well as statistics based on gender and physical appearance. Women were 95 percent honest whereas men came in a bit lower at 91 percent. In terms of hair, blondes were the most honest and the bald were the least. The overall national average clocked in at 92 percent. The undercover observers also witnessed a few intriguing incidents including a man in a suit who took 13 bottles (in Boston) and someone attempting to take the money box itself (in West Virginia). However it was an experiment that ended on an encouraging note. Honest Tea co-founder Seth Goldman commented, “It’s refreshing. Because based on what you hear and read, there appears to be a lot of distrust in the country. And there shouldn’t be, because we found that, overall, people are more honest than we give them credit for … and that’s a positive story.”

You can fill in a description of yourself here to discover where your honesty ranks, based on the national averages established during the experiment. 


Photo by Reena Mahtani, licensed under Creative Commons.

Interview with Gay McDougall: Minority Rights Advocate


As a lawyer and minority rights advocate, Gay McDougall’s career has spanned four decades and reached every continent. She has been dedicated to furthering the breadth of marginalized voices through a number of posts with the United Nations, and in partnership with international organizations, and was recently appointed chair of Minority Rights Group, an organization which supports minority rights through education, litigation, and advocating for sustainable development policies. Utne Reader recently had a chance to catch up with McDougall and discuss her accomplished and ongoing career: 

You grew up during in the U.S. with segregation and then you went to college through integration so I wanted to know how this has informed your career?

It’s been the core motivation of my career and it’s also been the thought of a lot of my intuitive knowledge about how discrimination works, the many forms it takes, and how it impacts both individuals and communities.

That led you into your career as a lawyer and being involved with many organizations. Can you go through some of the highlights of your work in different countries and with different institutions?

I would name as one of the highlights of my career of working on racial discrimination issues in the United States including being in one of the early crews of people who registered black voters throughout the south after the Voting Rights Act in the early 60’s. That was a little bit before my career got started because I was a college student.

I would say that my involvement in the liberation struggles in southern Africa, and most particularly in Namibia and South Africa—my years of getting to know and work with Nelson Mandela and certainly standing next to him when he voted for the first time in his life.

I would say that one of my career highs or maybe you’d say lows, is being in Rwanda not long after the genocide there. And then going on to work in countries around the world—Cambodia, India, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Haiti, Australia with the indigenous communities there. And a true highlight was my opportunity to serve as the first Independent Expert on Minorities.

And what did that entail?

My job was to try first of all to promote the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Minorities—ethnic, religious, linguistic minorities in countries around the world and throughout communities. I also had the task of going to countries and interacting with governments at the very highest level and then assessing how those countries were or were not meeting their international obligations under treaties that mandated non-discrimination under the Declaration on Minorities. So in that capacity I traveled to every continent and in some cases because minority communities generally live in sort of isolated, distant places, it also meant traveling to those isolated distant places to meet with members of affected communities. And that was truly a highlight and I don’t think that even with all my years of working with NGOs and affected groups around the world, was I able to both interact with governments at that high level and to also get to interact with communities in such a fashion and on their turf. And always with the special enabling of powers of the U.N., which is interpreters, so I could actually talk to people even those that spoke local languages, so that I could be in their environment, communicate with them through their own local languages and really get a feel, my own feel, for what the situation is for minorities around the world.

I won’t forget going to this very distant, dusty, isolated village, Gambela, in Ethiopia right on the border with South Sudan—someplace that most of the members of the government of Ethiopia never went to. And being able to be out there, to talk to people about an incident that had happened there that had genocide overtones. And I called as I usually do a meeting of women of the area and so one night in one thatched roof meeting place, the women came to meet with me. Elderly women, young women, children with them in tow, and they had been through a very, very difficult time. Their men had been either killed or chased off. They were without financial support and they were also in great physical jeopardy. And they said to me no one has ever asked us what happened. And that being, not only because of where they are, but because they were women. To me those, were very special moments.

You’ve had all these different experiences and worked with a wide variety of organizations. In your experience what’s been the most sustainable and effective method for advocating and working towards minority rights—has it been a more top-down or bottom-up perspective?

It’s actually been both. There is no substitute for helping people gain their own sense of empowerment, and their own sense that they can have the tools to deal with their problems themselves. But there’s also no substitute for seeing that national laws respect their rights. So that’s the lever that local communities have to ultimately pull. But it’s got to be there.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing minorities today?

It’s very hard to say what the most pressing issue is. I tend to think that poverty and economic exclusion are really critical pieces. Everywhere I was able to travel to take a look at minorities and sometimes indigenous people, though that was not quite in my mandate at the U.N., there was no doubt about it that the first thing that they suffered from was poverty. Economic exclusion was really a major tool used to marginalize them.

You mentioned you were in Rwanda after the genocide. In extreme cases like that, how should communities or even international institutions address past violations against various groups?

In general, of course we all in favor of prosecuting the bad guys, the perpetrators have to be held to account. Various countries have found various ways to do it. In 2011, I went to Rwanda which was the first time I had been there since right after the genocide. So I saw the country at these two ends of the spectrum. Rwanda has taken a approach to accountability. They’ve had these village quasi-judicial tribunals. They’ve had some regular prosecution and the ad hoc tribunal. I am persuaded that while one holds out accountability as the gold standard, that communities have to be allowed to find their own way of reaching that standard. I don’t know that there’s any place where that gold standard has been reached.

What else, in addition to Minority Rights Group, are you working on or partnering with?

I’ve been on the board of the Global Fund for Women for nine years which funds grassroots advocacy among women around the world. I’m now on the Global Advisory Panel for the executive director of U.N. Women. I’ve also been following and trying to do some writing, maybe some lobbying on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. Trying to make sure that minorities are fully considered in the development of the agenda and will reap equally in the outcome of development processes.

How do you see, in terms of development and minority rights, climate change factor in?

Climate change is one of the central issues that is trying to be tackled in this Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. I think that there’s no question that climate change is going to have, or is having, a disproportionate impact on minorities and indigenous populations. From ones that live off the land, the changes that occur, think of the nomadic populations in desert areas. But also in terms of displacement both directly because of climate change, but also by governments. As governments try to deal with moving population groups off of the coastal areas, the minority groups tend to have a tenuous title to their land. And also tend to be sitting on some very valuable land. So there will be a greater contest for those pieces of land as climate change bears down more deeply. 

Minority Rights Group just released their annual State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples report. This year’s publication focuses on hate crimes and hate speech and can be read here.

Photo courtesy Minority Rights Group.

Applying for a Second Chance


Ban the Box advocates for policy changes in the hiring process for the formerly incarcerated.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over two million people behind bars. For those who have served their time and are released, reintegration into society can be full of obstacles. One particularly challenging barrier is in getting hired. The majority of job applications ask potential employees if they have ever been convicted of a felony, a category which includes numerous nonviolent crimes.

All of Us or None is an organization which established a campaign called Ban the Box. The campaign is working to eliminate this question (and its accompanying check box) from applications. Those involved, including formerly incarcerated individuals and local agencies recognize the structural discrimination that surrounds a past conviction. Additionally they believe that having access to a job can greatly reduce the risk of going back to prison as employment provides economic security and a sense of contributing to society.

Due in part to the campaign’s advocacy, as of today, applicants in California will no longer be required to divulge this information when initially applying to public positions. California joins nine other states where there are bans on asking about past convictions. Jesse Stout, the policy director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children says, “There’s a growing societal consensus in our state, California, and country that punishment is not a compelling societal goal in and of itself, and punishing someone doubly for a mistake made in the past isn’t worthwhile.” The National Employment Law Project surveyed public employers and found that the state is in compliance with the roll out of the new law.

However advocates acknowledge there is still a long road ahead of them. The bans are only relevant to jobs in the public sector which excludes a lot of job opportunities. Additionally, the question concerning criminal records still appears on most applications for housing (both public and private), loans, and public benefits.

Photo by Flazingo Photoslicensed under Creative Commons.


Artivism: Make Your Own Children's Book

children book

illustration by Robert Trujillo 

"I started to read to my son when he was a baby and I continue to read to him and with him. If he can read, write, and comprehend I feel that he will have a much better chance in this world to avoid BS. And by BS I mean propaganda, mind control, and misinformation. I launched my first self-published story this month to contribute to a more diverse array of stories in children's books. Please check it out." — Robert Trujillo

If you're doing something to make the world a better place, you could be featured in the next Artivism. Let us know what you're up to at cwilliams@utne.com or send a tweet.

There’s No Place Like Home


New Strategies Tackle Chronic Homelessness.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are over 610,000 people who experience homelessness on a given night. Within this population, 23 percent are children and over 57,000 are veterans.

Some laws have been enacted that punitively address this issue—from criminalizing sleeping in public spaces to banning organizations from serving meals in a park. Anti-homeless ‘spikes’ have even been installed in front of urban storefronts and luxury apartments to prevent people from sleeping in the area.

Fortunately there is another idea that is gaining more traction. Housing First is a movement that focuses on immediately providing the chronically homeless with a home or apartment. This is in contrast to the more traditional model, Continuum of Care, which transitions people from the streets to a shelter to a housing program and then into their own place, with other strings attached. The philosophy of Housing First is that people experiencing homelessness need a home first in order to stabilize other areas of their life such as a finding a job, getting education, or tackling substance abuse.

In Utah, the state calculated the costs associated with homelessness which arise from trips to the hospital as well as jail stints. Working with an estimated $11,000 for a home and a case worker, they figured out that this was the more economic route. Home recipients are encouraged to become completely self-sufficient, but even if they don’t (some face substance or mental health issues that may prevent this) they still get to keep their place. Utah has seen their homeless rate reduced by 78 percent and is aiming to end homelessness throughout the state by 2015.

Also using the Housing First system, 100,000 Homes has enrolled 238 communities throughout the U.S. The campaign partners with local agencies and volunteers which begin the process by going into the streets to get to know the homeless population. A database is then compiled and the most vulnerable are identified in order to be prioritized for housing. As in Utah, they also cite this model as money saving and though approximately 15 percent of those given houses do not work out in the long-term, the organization has recently attained its goal of housing 100,000 people. One of those reached, Mallyveen Teah now has an apartment and a job in construction. He says, "Something as simple as giving a person a set of keys to their own place makes a huge difference in terms of their outlook on life, the world." Other cities, nationally and even internationally are now looking to this model to help their community’s homeless populations.

Photo by Kent Williams, licensed under Creative Commons.

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