Friday, July 12, 2013

"this little light of mine"

adam and i were invited to speak at our church, the denton unitarian universalist fellowship, to help cover one of the sundays while our amazing minister was on vacation.  the worship committee vaguely asked for a talk about "what you both are doing with the city", but left it rather open-ended after that.

nervously, we said yes.  what followed was a lot of procrastination, uncertainty, terror, and finally, a big push at the end to get it done.  adam and i had never done anything like this before -- we've both spoken in public plenty of times, but never on a sunday morning, and never in front of a group of people we cared so much about.  we were terrified that our sermon would fall short of what the congregation hoped to receive at a church service.

in the end, no one fell asleep, so we're counting it as a minor victory.  and i have to say, doing the morning announcements now at church seem like a breeze after agreeing to do this!

you be the judge -- if you're interested, the text is below, and there's a video too.


The situation is hopeless. Let us proceed.” When the American composer and writer John Cage said this, I think he meant that the world is full of problems. You won’t solve them all. But you have to start somewhere – knowing that you probably won’t see the finish line. When nations are at war, when cities are blighted, when the fabric of neighborhoods is torn and tattered – you have to look into your heart. Find your inner strength. And then roll up your sleeves and pick up a shovel or pick up the phone and begin.

Adam and I are here today to tell you about how we began our journeys of service to our community. We are delighted and grateful for the invitation. But we are also very aware that we are definitely not the only ones here on this journey. Indeed, we have been inspired by many of you who have done far more than us serve the common good. Our hope this morning is that all of you – whether you are far down a path of service or just starting to think about what you might do – can read something of your own journey into our stories and that, together, we can spur each other on to a greater commitment to our community.

For me, things began when I tried to cross the street.

It was 2009, and we had just moved to Denton. We bought a house in a quiet neighborhood on an even quieter street. We were excited about being so close to the center of town, and only a few blocks away from a great elementary school. We were excited about being able to walk and bike everywhere, since that's what we were already used to. Because before we lived here, we had spent three years living in the Netherlands, which is about as bike-friendly as you can get. Prior to that, we lived in Boulder, Colorado, which is famous for its mountain bike trails and pedestrian-friendly downtown. Crossing the street safely just seemed like the natural order of things, I guess. So I was surprised one day, when Gracie was not quite two years old, that pushing her in her stroller across the street was almost impossible, if not extremely dangerous.

That simple, yet frustrating experience was the turning point in my life. If I can't even cross the street as an adult, how in the world would Gracie be able to cross that same intersection when she started Kindergarten? Her future elementary school was over there – was I going to have to drive her three blocks every day to get her there safely? Were we going to have to sell the house we had just bought so we could move to the other, “safer” side of the street? Was I going to go crazy living in this car-centric metropolis?

I guess at that point I had two options: I could have complained to my husband, and anyone else who cared to listen, about bringing me to this godforsaken concrete jungle when life in Holland was so much easier. Or I could do something about it. I did live here, after all. Looking back on what we left behind seemed less productive than looking forward to what we could create. I kind of felt like I should invest in my new hometown. So, I chose the latter. It just seemed more... worthwhile, I guess.

So, I got involved. I sought out some bike activists and asked to meet for coffee. I asked to learn about the history of bike culture and politics in Denton, and left armed with a list of phone numbers of various city officials and staffers who might be relevant to my mission. I can't say I was the easiest person to talk with in the beginning – my anger and distrust of city leaders made me more reactive than I probably needed to be at the start, and I admit to still being more dramatic than I ought to be at times. But by getting to know people and finding our common ground, I learned that dialogue and tenacity was a pretty productive way to get things done. And what I've learned along the way is that our city aren't bad guys. Just like you and me, they just want the best for Denton. And if we don't tell them what's up, they won't know where the needs in our community are. I read an article a while back called “Democracy is for Amateurs,” by Eric Liu in which he argues that Americans have hugely overdeveloped consumer muscles and atrophied citizen muscles. Having strong citizen muscles means thinking about the future and not just immediate gratification. It means asking what’s good for the community and not just oneself.

Liu goes on to write: “When self-government is dominated by professionals representing various interests, a vicious cycle of citizen detachment ensues. Regular people come to treat civic problems as something outside themselves, something done to them, rather than something they have a hand in making and could have a hand in unmaking. They anticipate that engagement is futile, and their prediction fulfills itself.”

He mentions a billboard that some of you may have seen. It simply reads: “You're not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.” By analogy, Liu argues that we aren’t stuck in sclerotic government and extractive politics. We are these things. This is an indictment of apathy, but it is also grounds for hope, because it means if we just shift our mindset and our habits we can reclaim civic life. As Liu says, civic engagement can become contagious as more people realize that “We are the renewal of self-government we yearn for.”

If I've learned anything about living in this dynamic, vibrant, eclectic community, it's that if you give people an opportunity to get involved, they'll do it. It's inspiring the way that we can get things done in Denton, with the citizenry that we have here. A few examples:

When I was appointed to the city's bicycle task force, with the task of designing a comprehensive bike plan for Denton, I knew I needed input from my neighbors and friends. So when I announced that I'd be at a coffee shop, over at Dan's, or heading out for some tacos somewhere and wanted to meet about this, people showed up by the dozens to share their ideas. That knowledge opened up an opportunity for me to serve on another committee to look at how we can improve the condition of our crumbling streets. And when I asked people to give me some ideas on how we could incorporate public art into these road improvement projects, people shared tons of ideas which I was able to then bring back to the committee. And when Gracie was involved in a couple of scary bike accidents recently, I realized that she needed a bike safety class. So I called the Denton Police Department and asked if they could teach one to her and some of her friends. And simply by making a few phone calls and putting out an announcement on Facebook, I was able to arrange for 15 little ones to participate in a Bike Rodeo at the Denton Community Market. I had the idea, yes, but it was the community who came together to help volunteer, share their space, and donate some amazing treats for some pretty awesome goody bags.

I don't do any of this alone. I couldn't! Not if I wanted to get anything done! From the very beginning, I've involved my family – whether it's asking Adam to rearrange his work so I could get to an important meeting or dragging both Gracie and Lulu down to city hall to stand witness to the positive changes we're trying to create together, I feel it's important that we're in this together, as a team. “The A-Team,” if you will. I really don't think any of us, if we want to be productive, does anything alone. We are, all of us, full of ideas and potential, and given the right opportunity are powerful makers of change. And as I look out among you this morning, I see many inspiring people who have accomplished great things on behalf of this community as well. We're kind of getting known as “that activist church,” and I'm proud of our reputation! There are others among us who may just need a little nudge in the right direction. Others still who are searching for the right fit. And probably countless others who just haven't crossed their dangerous intersection yet, but when they do, will be unstoppable. [AMBER END HERE]

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My story begins in 2006, when we moved to Holland and I became a foreigner. I couldn’t read the papers or understand the issues. I learned the connection between language and citizenship – and what this means for being human. If you are going to be a human, you can’t just metabolize like the plants or move about like the animals. You have to speak up and act on behalf of ideals that go beyond mere survival. I couldn’t do that in Holland, so I came back to the U.S., to Denton, looking to recover my humanity.

I found it, of all places, in a gas well. Or, rather, in the 267 gas wells inside the city limits of Denton. Did you know we had that many around here? That gives us an impressive gas well to Whataburger ratio of 90:1.

I started to learn about all this in 2011 when Amber and I watched the documentary Gasland. The film makes the argument that all those wells are poisoning our air and water and destroying beautiful places and communities. There are dramatic scenes in the movie of people igniting their kitchen tap water on fire. Flames shoot out of faucets, nearly taking the hairs off the arms of the folks holding the lighters. This happens, the movie claims, because nearby drilling operations have introduced methane gas into their water supply.

After seeing those fire balls, I looked at Amber across the couch. We didn’t have to say a word. Ten years of marriage and I know when we are both thinking the same thing. So, we dug around the house for a lighter and sheepishly approached the kitchen sink. Amber turned on a trickle of water. I put the flame next to it with my arm extended as far as possible from my body. Nothing happened, then suddenly a brighter flash of light and a bigger flame lit up the kitchen sink. ‘Oh my god!’ I thought for a split second. Then, I noticed our water wasn’t on fire…our plastic water filter was on fire. I got the lighter too close to the part that attaches it to the faucet and it had started to burn and melt. It still has a crack in that spot to this day.

Lots of people don’t know Denton has been so pin-cushioned by drilling rigs. This may not have turned my water into fire, but each gas well is allowed to emit several tons of air pollutants every year – one study estimated that gas wells in our area are responsible for as much air pollution as all vehicles on the roads. And the chemicals used in drilling and fracking (essentially breaking up the rock formation) might contaminate ground water supplies. But there are also the economic benefits and people’s mineral property rights to consider.

In 2010, three wells were drilled on Bonnie Brae next to the hospital, McKenna Park, and several homes. I spoke with one City Council member who said approving that project was the toughest decision of his six years in service – “I felt like I had a gun to my head”—he said, because the city was powerless to stop the developer or get them to move the wells further away. Many people protested this industrial incursion into a residential area.

That’s when Denton started revising its rules for drilling and fracking. Councilmember Kevin Roden asked me to lead a citizens’ group to help City Council make better rules. We were an unofficial or ‘shadow’ advisory group. The city had its own official task force, but three of its five members had strong ties to the oil and gas industry. Mr. Roden hoped that we could provide a more representative voice of the people.

There were about eight of us and we called ourselves DAG, short for Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group. Over the course of two years, we authored reports, hosted public forums, ran a blog, and even moderated a mayoral candidate debate. We spent countless hours at City Council meetings. We lobbied for greater protections for health and welfare. I can’t say many of our recommendations got adopted, but we did get the setback distance between wells and homes increased slightly and helped push through measures to reduce pollution.

I was fighting for not just the health of our children, but also the health of our democracy. We are dependent on high tech energy systems that we cede a great deal of power to the corporations that own and operate them and the experts that design and manage them.

The question isn’t whether technology has politics, because it always does. The question is: who gets to participate? I think people who live next to polluting industrial operations should have a say in their design. We should democratize technology. I don’t like slogans, but if I had one it might be “no innovation without representation.”

Now, we all know Amber is a better person than I am. It’s true in so many ways. One way is the fact that her activism is done entirely on her own time – not as part of her job. But I get paid for my political activity. I am a philosophy professor at UNT. That makes me a public servant. I see my work as part of the mission of the intellectual to serve the common weal.

So this is when you think, hmmm…you know, I could do a lot more community service if I got paid for it too! But is your job really as narrowly defined as you take it to be? Perhaps even at work you can serve the community.

That’s been true for me. Philosophers typically write philosophy papers for other philosophers. Their professional identity is bound up in this. They think their disciplinary peers are the only ones qualified to judge them. It makes no sense to write reports for city council or talk to a COO of a local drilling operation – they’re not philosophers!

But Socrates never once spoke to a person with a PhD in philosophy. In that spirit, I’ve been practicing what we call field philosophy. We see our work as being out in the ‘field’ where real-world problems exist.
This blurring of categories is something UUs do well. In the 1930s, the Unitarian Minister L.P. Jacks said it beautifully: “A master in the art of living,” he writes, “draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.”
I thought about this quote when we were out for pizza last week. The restaurant had a program called ‘pizzas for a purpose’ that donates 20% of receipts to a non-profit organization. That didn’t just happen. Someone thought of that. And in so doing they went from just serving customers to serving a greater cause. [ADAM END HERE]

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And so we ask you here today, what's your greater cause? We realize that there's a world full of issues to tackle: global hunger, human trafficking, climate change, Monsanto, the civil war in Syria, marriage equality... I could go on seemingly forever. But we've chosen to keep our efforts at the city level, inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville and his notion that it is by involvement in local politics that citizens learn to be free and become imbued with what he calls the “spirit of liberty.”

Look at that piece of paper you drew or wrote on at the start of this service – that thing in your immediate community that needs your attention. Now look at that big, ol' empty space taking up the rest of the page. That's where you come in. What are some concrete ways you can tackle that need? Do you need to introduce yourself to your city councilperson? Do you need to contact your kids’ principal, or join the PTA? Do you need to buy a couple of bags of mulch, or talk with a like-minded neighbor to organize a neighborhood cleanup party? What can you do? And who can you get to join you? It doesn't have to be much, but it can be something.

You see, friends, our work starts HERE. And as Lao-Tse explains, it starts with you:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.