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Eugene Weekly : 7.5.07

It's Our Country!

Admiring the U.S. — and making it better

by Suzi Steffen with help from Chuck Adams

The fireworks have burst, the potato salad is safely packed in the fridge and we've returned to work from a day when we're reminded that the country's ideals couldn't be higher — as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, the plan is a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Of course, we fall short of these ideals, both in history — the seizure of Native peoples' lands; slavery for Africans and African Americans; the Chinese Exclusion Act; internment camps for Japanese Americans — and now: institutionalized torture and "extraordinary rendition"; hostility toward Latino immigrants; the dismantling of abortion rights; the Supreme Court's shocking decision about school desegregation. This country could be so much better.

And it has been. For some of us, the Bill of Rights is one of the most precious documents ever produced. Others are proud of the Emancipation Proclamation, the widespread resistance of slaves, the courageous stands taken by many Native peoples and the resurgence of tribes from the Navajo/Dine to the Klamath. We take courage from the examples of Dolores Huerta, Paul Wellstone, Dorothy Day, June Jordan, John Muir, Emma Goldman and Harold Ickes. Some of us are fired up by the churches and individuals who took part in the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s and who are leading the charge in the New Sanctuary movement. We admire these people and movements and documents; we also love our fern gullies, our sloughs and our mountains.

And we're tired of letting the right wing define "patriotism" or decide what it means to be an American. We're sick of watching as others subvert our rights, waving the flag all the way to warrantless wiretapping. We're fed up with watching the free fall of our ideals and the free fall of our approval ratings across the entire planet.

We live here, we work here, we grow food and make love and raise children and create art and community here, in this country. And we want to share our passion and our gratitude with all of those working to stave off despair — working to better this place we call home.

We asked a series of four questions to various people around town working or volunteering towards a better society. Here are some of their voices, the voices of people working toward the goals set out so beautifully in the documents that founded this nation.

 

Kate Ritley is the Development Director of the Cascadia Wildlands Project, and she wrote an all-in-one response to our questions.

Late in the 1970's, my folks built a log home amid the mossy, misty forests of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. They were still using a chainsaw inside the house when I arrived home from the hospital. My childhood was a medley of long summer days building forts in the woods, family camping trips to rivers like the Hamma Hamma and Dosewallips, and precarious drives up snowy logging roads to find the perfect Christmas tree.

The forests, mountains and streams I grew up exploring formed the foundation of my love for this country. These places shaped my understanding of homeland well before I could recite the pledge of allegiance or differentiate a Republican from a Democrat.

As many well know, the '80s and '90s on the peninsula and beyond were defined by timber boom and bust. Though oblivious to the political muckraking, newspaper headlines, and restaurant signs for "spotted owl soup," I took deep, personal offense to the stumpfields that were rapidly replacing my beloved forests. Around the time of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, at the tender age of 12, I resolved to dedicate my life to fighting for the places, the homeland, that I love.

Ten years older and wielding a degree in environmental studies, I followed the timber wars south to Oregon. In my first job as a grassroots organizer, I worked with UO students to restore national Roadless Area protection. Soon my attention switched to a local focus as I worked with the Cascadia Wildlands Project and Oregon Wild to protect forests in the McKenzie River watershed. Somewhere between gathering petition signatures at the Eugene Celebration and writing my first grant proposals, the Cascadia Wildlands Project asked me to take the title of Development Director.

Development work wasn't exactly what I envisioned as an impassioned 12-year-old, but it has given me a meaningful, professional, and powerful way to contribute to our region's conservation movement. As long as we live in a country where money flows freely from corporate accounts to political pockets and our government auctions off old-growth trees to the highest bidder, it is my job to raise money on behalf of the wild places I love. My work enables my fellow staff members to educate, organize, agitate, collaborate, litigate, and advocate for public lands owned by every American. What could be more patriotic than protecting our natural heritage for future generations of Americans to enjoy?

While some people might feel defeated by our current administration or jaded by decades of uphill battles, I see that the tide is turning in our favor. Public support for protecting old-growth forests has never been higher. Congress is moving toward legislating protection for older forests throughout the Pacific Northwest. New models of restoration forestry are enhancing wildlife habitat and reviving rural economies. Fueled by my deep-rooted love for these landscapes and youthful idealism, I intend to make sure this tide never turns around.

I hope by the time I retire from the conservation profession, clearcuts will have gone the way of the dinosaurs and wolf howls will echo through the mountains. In the meantime, I will continue my fight to protect, defend, and honor my homeland.

 

Betty Taylor is the Ward 2 representative on Eugene's City Council.

Tell me one or two things (people, historical movements or documents, etc.) that you admire in or about the United States.

The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

What makes you hopeful about the country right now?

I'm not very hopeful right now. I hope that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. The fact that the Democrats made big gains in the last election makes me somewhat hopeful, but they're not doing as much as I hoped or as fast as I hoped.

We need to get back a middle class, which is what FDR did, really, during his time. We came to have a strong middle class, and now we have the wealthy and the poor; the middle class is shrinking. I don't know that I'm hopeful about that, but I think it's something we really need to restore. And the tax structure could do part of that — and also protecting jobs.

How are you participating in making the U.S. a better place to live?

I'm trying to make Eugene a better place — or keep it as good as it is. I was really inspired a long time ago by a woman who was the national pres of the League of Women Voters who gave a talk about doing things in your little corner of the world that contribute to everything. Saving natural areas is what I'm trying to do. And supporting our sister city relationships, which is our contribution to international relations. I try to get people answers when they have problems and stand up for people when they're being mistreated.

If you had an unlimited supply of money and/or time to tackle one problem, what would it be and what would you do?

One problem?! I would buy all the natural areas that are left in Eugene and give them to the city, if I made sure before hand that I could guarantee that they will remain that way, not that they would build something on it. And I would put in a rail line, at least for the central part of town.

 

David Fidanque is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and the chairperson of the national ACLU Executive Directors Steering Committee. Fidanque says he "grew up in Manhattan about 2 miles from Ground Zero."

Tell me one or two things (people, historical movements or documents, etc.) that you admire in or about the United States.

The history of this country is a continuing saga of a people striving to realize a vision of freedom. We have made much progress since 1776, but a lot remains to be done. After a bloody Civil War we abolished slavery, but racism remains deeply rooted in our society. Women won the right to vote in 1920, but a majority of our Supreme Court still seems to think that men should decide whether they deserve the right to control their own bodies. We are a nation of immigrants that remains hostile to newcomers — especially those of a different color or who speak a language we do not understand.

Our nation was founded on the wise principle that governmental power should be dispersed among the three branches of government to avoid the kinds of abuses that led to the American Revolution. And yet, we currently have a president and vice president who act as if they are beyond the reach of any authority but their own. They have ordered or approved the unlimited detention, torture and abuse of "enemy combatants," the kidnapping and "rendition" of terror suspects to secret prisons in Afghanistan, Poland and Romania, the suspension of basic due process protections for detainees in Guantanamo and the warrantless wiretapping and data-mining of American citizens.

And yet we are a nation of people who share a vision and common values that are far better than our leaders today. We will live up to that vision and continue our long march toward liberty and justice for all.

What makes you hopeful about the country right now?

The courageous career civil servants and members of the military in the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Pentagon who have leaked the information about the abuses carried out by this administration. They have risked not only their careers but also long prison sentences to alert the American people about the illegal and unconstitutional activities that have been carried pursuant to the orders of the president and vice president. If this were the 1950s or '60s, we wouldn't have known what was being done in our names under a cloak of secrecy.

How are you participating in making the U.S. a better place to live?

I am lucky enough to have a great job that allows me to work on the issues I care about every day, but the secret is that anyone can work on these issues by believing that together we can make a difference — and by exercising the most precious right of all, the right to vote.

If you had an unlimited supply of money and/or time to tackle one problem, what would it be and what would you do?

I would work to reform the initiative and referendum process to ensure that no one's fundamental constitutional or civil rights could be subjected to the whim of the majority.

 

Toni Van Deusen is a poet, a participant in the Lane Literary Guild and a volunteer who gives time and energy to teaching poetry. In answer to our questions, Van Deusen gave us a short prose response about her background and, generously, a poem.

I'm an Air Force Brat. I grew up steeped in a kind of ceremonial patriotism that never extended to any sort of "my country right or wrong" values. My father, a WWII veteran who served his country for almost 30 years, hung a piece of black cloth over his American flag on the day Bush began the Iraq War. The flag he loved still flew outside his house, along with a symbol of shame and sorrow.

I don't live here because I'm patriotic. I live here because America is my home: family, friends, language and customs. As Robert Frost said, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Retreat

I felt sorry for kids who lived in civilian towns.

Between the wars, I never gave a thought to what it was all for. 

We lived across acres of razor-cut green from Headquarters,

a red brick square with The Flag out front. 

Decommissioned fighters, tricked out and grounded,

stood on empty street corners. One blood-red and bat-winged, 

an F-102, my favorite. All our parents had been in the war,

but that was long ago, before we were born, 

before the Wild West where we played cowboys and Indians

endlessly in the sticky Illinois summer afternoons 

and on into the blinking firefly evenings.

Every day at sundown, the siren would sound Retreat — 

Every car on the road stopped, everyone outside

downed shovels and cap guns and laundry baskets, 

stood facing HQ and The Flag, hand over heart, caps off,

the men in uniform rigid and saluting. This busy hive, 

this small city, one as the Flag was lowered with immense ceremony

and the firing of rifles into the dusk. Then all silent 

as the Anthem crackled over loudspeakers. Played as it was meant

to be, by a military band, solemn, loud, unmistakably martial. 

As the last echo of home of the brave trailed away, life resumed.

My friends and I ran around to the street behind our houses

to see the Chanute Air Force Band march past, colored boys

most of them, in immaculate dress blues, trumpets and trombones

gleaming golden in the last light. Some days there was music,

Sousa and George M. Cohen, Irving Berlin. Some days

simply their deep voices shouting the cadence: I don't know,

but I've been told … Between the wars, I thought all of this beautiful.

 

Becky Flynn is a community activist and a lawyer who describes herself as a former professional grassroots organizer. Sharon Flynn is a hospitalist at Oregon Medical Group. Becky and Sharon are the proud parents of Hailey, seen in the pictures.

Tell me one or two things (people, historical movements or documents, etc.) that you admire in or about the United States.

Becky: Sojourner Truth's speech, delivered in 1851 at a women's convention in Akron, Ohio, is one of the most powerful, gutsy, and deeply inspiring speeches I have encountered.

[The speech can be found at Fordham University's Modern History Sourcebook, www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.html]

Sharon: The person who sticks out in my mind is Rosa Parks. She was a person who stood up and did a simple act; she was scared to do it, but she and made a big change.

What makes you hopeful about the country right now?

Becky: The fact that presidents can only serve two terms in office.

Sharon: I feel hopeful tht we will respond to the crisis in Iraq and that it will bring us together rather than divide us. I see people doing work in reponse to getting Bush out of office.

How are you participating in making the U.S. a better place to live?

Becky: I have lobbied my elected representatives through letters, phone calls, face-to-face visits and public testimony, urging them to vote to protect civil liberties and to oppose attempts by our current corporatocracy to turn America into a theocratic police state.

Sharon: [Sharon works on Sacred Heart's new palliative care initiative.] Palliative care is am umbrella term including hospice and end of life care, a program that helps the quality of life for those with chronic medical conditions like emphysema or heart failure. At Sacred Heart, we're staring a palliative care consult service to improve end-of–life care in our community. I'm one of the medical directors.

An example of palliative care would be if you have emphysema and you're in the hospital, we'd talk to you about your values and your goals for treatment and assign the care based on your values and your limits.

Some people feel very strongly that they want to die naturally; they don't want machines or be hooked up to a ventilator. We can make them comfortable and help that person have a good quality of life up to the end, not only from a physical but also a spiritual and psychological standpoint. We have a rurse care manager, two physicians, social workers, pastoral care — a whole team of people involved, inclusing a music thanatologist, and [at Sacred Heart] we have [the program] No One Dies Alone. And we have a quilt program, where volunteers make quilts and put them on the beds of people who are dying so the family can take that quilt.

So much in our country has been focused on keeping people alive that the pendulum has swung the other way, and people don't necessarily want the technology at the end of their lives.

If you had an unlimited supply of money and/or time to tackle one problem, what would it be, and what would you do?

Becky: I would design curricula for young people at varying levels of education (sixth grade, ninth grade, 12th grade, college) to help them develop the tools they need to actively participate in our representative democracy. Children in the U.S. are taught that our government is "by the people and for the people," but they are not taught the skills necessary to enable them to affect change at the local, state, national and international level. I want the young people of the United States to know that the events in our country's history of which we are most proud — the framing of the Constitution, the abolition of slavery, the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, the advent of the eight-hour workday, the successes of the civil rights movement, the passage of environmental laws — didn't just happen. Each of those tremendous changes occurred because thousands of ordinary people spent thousands of hours over the course of many years organizing to create that change. I want every kid and adult in America to know that whoever they are, they have the capacity and the duty to make this country live up to its highest ideals.

Sharon: Along that same vein [as palliative care], I think we need a hospice house in town to provide end-of-life care for those without family or whose family can't care for them. We need a freestanding home situation where we could take care of those people in a compassionate fashion

 

Angela Henderson is the managing director of the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company. About her background, she explains:

My early childhood was spent in northern Idaho. I grew up in a log cabin that my parents built out in the woods. We had electricity, but no plumbing, and for most of the time no telephone. That means we had an outhouse and created back porch showers when the weather was good enough, and we had a CB radio for emergencies. When I moved to a suburban California town, it was a huge transition, learning to use a dishwasher and wearing shoes so my feet didn't burn on the asphalt. I have a deep appreciation for what my parents were attempting, growing our food and living simply, and I also appreciate the opportunities I had in California. I can't imagine I'd be working in theatre if I had stayed in Idaho, and theatre has been a major force in my life.

Tell me one or two things (people, historical movements or documents, etc.) that you admire in or about the United States.

A time in history that gets me excited is the time of the New Deal, specifically the arts programs like the Federal Theatre Project. It seems like a dream that the government put artists to work to stimulate the economy, and, at first, there was a surprising amount of artistic freedom. In the arts we are always trying to come up with new and creative ways to explain, or argue, the benefits of the arts. We have studies that show that youth participating in the arts will have better SAT scores and that the arts contribute to economic development in a variety of ways. It is much more difficult to describe the ways in which the arts fulfill something deeper, something about connecting with people. While the Federal Theatre Project was scrapped because of politics, it was one example of the American government not needing to be convinced that the arts have value.

What makes you hopeful about the country right now?

It is certainly easier to recall the awful things happening on the national and international scene than to identify what makes me hopeful. That said, this week I was inspired by walking to the theatre to see small groups of teenagers, huddled together in every corner completely focused on Shakespeare, learning their lines for the summer camp production of The Tempest. I am hopeful when I see groups of people working together, especially in the arts and especially young people. They are getting to know each other and relying on each other, despite whatever differences may exist. The act of creating together, collaborating, is a transformative experience that creates a lasting bond.

How are you participating in making the U.S. a better place to live?

After the last presidential election I gave up on politics, at least on any belief in national politics. Now I am trying to keep my focus and energy local. I am a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer, looking out for kids in the foster care system. I'm also on the board of Sparkplug Dance, which delivers top-notch dance programs for kids with and without disabilities all over town. My job, at Lord Leebrick, is a terrific place to contribute to community. We bring people together, both artists and audiences, to experience theater that means something and stories that provoke conversation.

If you had an unlimited supply of money and/or time to tackle one problem, what would it be, and what would you do?

At the top of a long list of things that I would change with an unlimited supply of money and time is the American educational system. We have failed to create an active and engaged citizenry in our current system. In some places we are not even providing a basic education, or a safe place to go to school. (Some might wonder if those in power want an educational system that inspires good citizens.) I truly believe if the average person understands the system and how to work for change the rest of the things on my list would be resolved. Oh, and my educational system would include tons of theatre, dance, visual art, and music in the curriculum as a way of exploring the history and cultures of the world.

 

Yvonne Braun is an assistant professor in the UO's Department of Sociology. Braun grew up in New York and has been interested in social and environmental justice since her late teens. She does research on communities impacted by a series of dams in Lesotho, Southern Africa, and her volunteer work in N.Y., California and India has included working with children and adults with special needs, hospice work with low income and homeless population, support groups and education on sexual violence and movements to protect low income housing.

Tell me one or two things (people, historical movements or documents, etc.) that you admire in or about the United States.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Mose Wright, Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzales, Cindy Sheehan, Michael Ratner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. These are all Americans that I admire greatly for their ability and courage to speak their truth in the face of some very difficult circumstances, often with great personal costs. But they believe or believed in working towards something larger than themselves, towards building a better and more humane society. They remind me of the potential in each of us.

What makes you hopeful about the country right now?

In the last year the climate in this country feels like it has shifted a bit and in a good way to me. More people seem to be recognizing the dangers of criminalizing dissent and the threats on civil liberties from the current administration. I see more collective action across issues, more open discussion about the war and empire, and a general sense of rising hopefulness about our ability to change the course of this country.

How are you participating in making the U.S. a better place to live?

Right now I feel I contribute most through teaching. At the UO, I teach sociology classes on social issues and social movements, gender and developing areas. In all of these I try to encourage critical thinking in my students and to internationalize their sociological imaginations, pushing them to see ourselves as part of a much larger global community. Much like the local communities in which we live, this global community is stratified in particular ways with often staggering inequalities. While we explore our participation and embeddedness in these global/local relationships, I try to have us as individuals recognize our own ability to develop a vision for ourselves and our communities and society, to be conscious of alternatives, to create change or work towards saving parts of our communities in danger of being lost. This spring term, students in one class "created" ten social movement organizations around issues they felt passionate about and designed incredibly creative and realistic tactics and strategies to meet these goals — their energy, ideas, and enthusiasm make this a better place to live for me.

If you had an unlimited supply of money and/or time to tackle one problem, what would it be and what would you do?

Just one?! At this moment, I would focus on addressing domestic and sexual violence in our community and society. I think we need more education, awareness, and legislative action as well as more funding to adequately address the depth and invisibility of these issues of violence that permeate our families, community and larger society.

 

 

COOL DOCUMENT LINKS

Read 'em in the original! (Or in transcript form.) It's always good to know what these things actually say.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution,

the Bill of Rights and other amendments (including our faves:the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th) are all available in the National Archives at www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/charters.html

Some others we like:

The Gettysburg Address (1863)www.loc.gov/exhibits/gadd/images/Gettysburg-2.jpg

The Port Huron Statement (1962)www.tomhayden.com/porthuron.htm

The Civil Rights Act (1964) usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/laws/majorlaw/civilr19.htm

The Voting Rights Act (1965)www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=100&page=transcript

Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 www.usdoj.gov/crt/cor/coord/titleixstat.htm