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by Elisa Chavez

I recently had dinner with some college friends, all of us in our early twenties and fresh out of school. We met up at a cozy restaurant, hugged, and proceeded to eat cozy comfort food and get extremely riled up about the state of the world. Campaign finance, giant corporations, media representation of the Arab world, we covered it alland eventually, as the social analysis reached a fever pitch, one of us burst out, “So what do we do about it?”

An embarrassed silence fell over the table.

I often find that the enormity of the world’s problems overwhelms me. My brain can’t pick a place to settle; instead, like a hummingbird experiencing a panic attack, it flits from one issue to the next without ever alighting onto a course of action. There are just too many problems, with too many potential solutions to choose from or worse, no apparent solutions at all.

Courtney Martin offers an antidote to activist’s ennui with her 2010 book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. The book, which offers eight portraits of young Americans engaged in progressive, socially conscious work, is written around the core belief that we can’t save the world singlehandedly and shouldn’t push ourselves to; however, there are opportunities in every life to make small, daily commitments to a better world.

Her subjects range from the low profile– a case manager at Homeboy Industries, a firebrand environmentalist from D.C. to the high profile, including Rachel Corrie and Rosario Dawson. Martin writes eloquently and with obvious empathy, and her subjects are all incredibly interesting people with compelling stories and laudable guts. But does her book deliver? Does it really provide readers with small ways to lead more activist lives?

For me, the largest obstacle was the fact that her book is not about small ways to participate; it’s about young people who made the career decision to be full-time activists. That’s not small! It’s their vocations, in some cases their entire lives. Then again, these stories really are great. If the book had truly been written the way I was expecting, a better title might have been “Do It Anyway: Last Weekend I Went to a Soup Kitchen and I’m Thinking About Donating to Heifer International.”

I think the trick is that Martin’s book is not a how-to guide or a detailed blueprint. You turn to it for inspiration. Given her varied cast of characters, I believe there’s something in it for everyone, whether your focus is going green, education, art, or peace activism. I also believe that because the book covers such a broad range of activist experiences, some of the stories will jump out at you over others. My favorite was “An Altar Boy With A Gun”, Martin’s portrait of Homeboy Industries case manager Raul Diaz. I can’t remember the last time a piece of writing made me laugh and cry and think about the way I engage with my community.

So maybe “Do It Anyway” isn’t going to give you a magazine-article rundown on five ways to conserve energy in your house. I’m still waiting for the definitive activist’s bible for daily life (although I have this sneaking suspicion it will only ever exist in my head). And actually, I think Martin does offer some practicable advice. In the weeks after finishing her book, I haven’t been able to forget what she says in her epilogue:

“We must hold these large-scale revolutions in our hearts while tackling small, radical every day acts with our hands.

 

Courtney E. Martin is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and an editor of Feministing.com. She is a 2002 recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, has written two other books, and has had her work in Mother Jones, Newsday, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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Tessa Rudnick, NEN Policy Intern

We all know it’s time to change the way we approach government. Oftentimes the current system fails the very people who supposedly control the democratic process. You wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t think that it’s time to change how we approach local governance, and it’s up to all of us to make this change.

Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing our World by David Gershon is a toolkit for people who want to make change within their communities but don’t know how or where to start. Often times the hardest step is figuring out how to participate in effective change, and Gershon does a great job in clearly identifying steps that anyone can take to adopt and make effective change. 

Gershon is more than qualified to write this book. As the founder and president of the Empowerment Institute, he has years of professional experience in connecting global leaders, sustainability leaders, and communities and organizations alike. The book acts as a reference of best practices for different organizations who have demonstrated “2.0” methods of working with and connecting diverse populations using an integrative and participatory methodology while serving the needs of their constituencies.

Easily the most poignant statement Gershon makes is that “people are willing to change if they have a compelling vision and are provided tools to help them bring it into being.”

Big problems should be approached with big solutions. Gershon asks the reader qualifying questions that aid the reader in identifying stregnths and gaps within their own social change skill set. By asking the appropriate questions, we can accomplish large tasks, such as identifying early adopters in order to create a supportive system for these people who are implementing the transformative change.

Everyone has the ability to either be a compelling leader, or effectively support the leaders who are making huge social change. It is books like this that fuels new thinking in the social change space, and greater supports the citizen-centered techniques used within the NEN and our partners.

Tessa Rudnick is a Graduate Student in Public Administration at Presidio Graduate School. She is interested in sustainability, civic participation, effective government, vegetarianism, and all things San Francisco.

 

Karen Kidwell, Executive Director, San Francisco Parks Trust

Over the past few months, I’ve been dipping into a book called “Building San Francisco’s Parks 1850-1930” by Terence Young. It’s a fascinating study that reveals continuing themes in the development and stewardship of our parks. I’m astonished at how the issues and challenges it chronicles parallel those we face today.

The terrain of San Francisco seemed incredibly bleak to those accustomed to the forest cover and greenery of the East Coast. By the time they began to impose their own ideas of natural beauty and transform the landscape, parks had already been associated with good health for several hundred years. Before germs were an accepted concept, parks were supposed to provide relief from “miasmas.”  Our earliest parks, like Portsmouth Square, were designed to be a source of fresh air. Later, ideas of nature and its association with moral improvement —what Professor Young terms the “romantic” strain in park development—fostered the creation of landscapes for contemplation and repose.

The “rational” school saw parks as a means to eliminate social ills and to bring all people in society together. Advocates and local improvement associations started as early as 1900 to advocate for more parks and activities for youth. San Francisco was seen as a city where people worked especially hard and needed relief. Some historic park activities like tennis and bicycling persist today, while other mainstays like carriage driving and horse riding have all but disappeared.

There was another compelling reason for developing parks—the example of Central Park and other parks on the East Coast proved that parks increased the property value of land nearby.  The squatters in San Francisco’s Outside Lands were removed by offering them lots, and a large rectangular park offered the maximum opportunity for prime building lots.

Golden Gate Park from way back when (undated photo, San Francisco, Public Library)

San Francisco’s parks have suffered from boom and bust economics and insecure revenue streams since their inception. Bond funding was used to finance part of Golden Gate Park. Its first phase of development occurred as the Nevada silver mines pumped enormous wealth into the city.  The silver bubble burst in 1875 and for 13 years there was little investment in the Park as salaries and the work force were cut drastically, and attitudes shifted to a “pay as you go” approach to funding. Philanthropy brought the one big addition to Golden Gate Park during those years, the Conservatory of Flowers, donated by wealthy and influential citizens. Parks have also been a constant source of debate, controversy, and even political maneuvering. Tree thinning in Golden Gate Park was a major controversy—twice.

From the start, our parks were the direct result of citizen advocacy and engagement. No matter how differently those early advocates valued parks, whether for health, contemplation, recreation and youth, or to bring society together—today each of those original values still rings true. Advocacy and a keen interest in improving our city through parks are driving forces that have remained unchanged, and continue to benefit everyone in San Francisco.

Karen Kidwell is Executive Director of the San Francisco Parks Trust, an organization that works to enhance and protect the parks, open spaces, and recreational activities of San Francisco’s residents.

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