In Birmingham, in 1963, it was the children who really made the nation take notice of Civil Rights. King tried to organize the city, but the adults, even disenfranchised, had too much to lose and feared the repercussions of demonstrating. It was the children of Birmingham, organized by an aide of MLK, who were called to demonstrate by the coded messages of a DJ over the airwaves. It was the kids who truly befuddled the authorities with their persistence and strength; it was them who went to "jail" by the hundreds, held in the livestock quarters of the fairground stockyards when the jails became full. It was them who stayed, resilient, for days and days, some as young as three or four. The image of those kids standing up for what they deserved was what truly catapulted the nation into outrage and paved the way for Civil Rights action.
And yet, when do we hear about this? Our history books conceal it; our collective consciousness either does not remember, or care, or understand the magnitude of this event. But I tell my students this story, ordinary school kids on the North side, and they sit, spellbound, reading the first person accounts of this event. It's one of my favorite lessons. I love it because they begin to feel the power they have. I tell them so they use that power. It's like what Malcolm X said, those that can vote in a bloc and choose not to wield that power, are truly sick.
We forget that the people most ignored have the capacity to have the greatest amount of power. They just have the least amount of resources to harness that power. Some like it like that. Some would have us keep it that way.
So, I've been thinking the last few weeks, and now I am wondering if it's like Malcolm X said: are we sick? Are we lazy? Or are we, as I hope, either like those children, unaware of our power... or like those voting blocs, too disorganized to wield our power?
This is what I have in mind: revolution.
I call it our renaissance, our rebirth into what we should be, what we want, what we know somehow we are capable of as a city.
I noticed today, driving through Tower Grove Park, that all the debris from the storm last week was cleared to the side of the roads, waiting for removal. Something about that struck me. The city in such disarray and upheaval, yet people were out on the street immediately when the storm passed, cleaning. Now, those neat piles of things cast to the side are our reminders. Out with the old: move on. Can we take that premise and work with it? Can we cast aside what doesn't work anymore to clear the way for a new vision?
I was just reading a huge national report of giving. In 2005, over $93 billion was given to religious charities in the US-- more than two times the amount given to education, more than four times the amount given to healthcare. I realize that religious organizations like the Salvation Army or Catholic Charities do social work and run several programs within these other categories, but do we give to religious charities because we believe so strongly in the religious aspect (and undoubtedly, for many, that answer would be yes), or do we give to the Salvation Army because we understand how organized they are and that they have the welfare of the people at heart?
Reading on, there was a profile of Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life. He was quoted as saying, "Reformation always starts with the peasants; they don't start with the elites." As inarticulate as his wording was, point taken. He then sited the "armies" of faith-based volunteers the world over, saying that in every village in the world, there is a church.
It reminded me of one of the best marketing models I have ever seen. Chicken Soup For the Soul. Nope, I've never read it, but I am well aware of its legacy in the publishing world. This little wisdom nugget book began as a self-published deal by the authors-- small-scale, small time, but with big dreams. They packed several hundred copies in the trunk of their car and began driving the country, dropping off copies in churches, creating the buzz, and the eventual demand that sold millions of copies and made it one of the hugest (and only) non-corporate publishing successes. They now have a Chicken Soup empire.
So when I think about this-- and I'm not religious-- but there's something to be learned here. We need to look at what it is that pulls all these people together. I don't think it's as simple as just God, but there's definitely something about creating a community to belong to and about a common identified purpose. Across all these Christian faiths in America, there's a pulling together, a lack of competition (to some degree), a common goal, and a HUGE network of shared resources. Why do you think the religious right is so hated? They figured out the power, people.
Don't we have some of those same characteristics in STL? Many of us are on the front every day trying to do those same things in our own way: trying to build up neighborhoods (like Tension Head and artist Lindsey Scott on Cherokee), providing community arts resources (SCOSAG, Mad Art, KDHX), bringing people together to think (the Arch City Chronicle, CommonSpace), and running businesses that contribute to the community (MoKaBe's, the Royale, Mangia). Etc. Etc. The list goes on and on-- those are just quick ones from the top of my head and people I know. Add in all the writers, the bands, photographers, artists, non-profits, groups, neighborhood associations... and it's an army, people. Our army to do our own work.
I can only assume we all want a safe place to live, one cultivated in beauty and character and culled from diversity and innovation. I know it's not simple. The problem is creating a common culture is long-established and we have been trying to figure it out as Americans for centuries. But everyday, we create common desires, common identities, and common goals in small ways-- why not something more? How about simply, we all work together, each of us in our own way, to make this city better? But, how about we do it by forming an organization that can exist as a power in this city?
So, I ask: am I the only one who wants this?
My idea: start a South Side Arts Coalition: civic-minded, politically active, community focused and arts driven. If you're in, let me know.
Besides a church in every village, on every street on the South Side, there are people creating a better vision for this city: non-profit workers, small business owners, community activists, artists, and kids who want to be all of the above. Let's see if we can't do something together. We have our army; I'd like to start mobilizing.