Director's message

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director, November Coalition

Not long ago, on an e-list where online leaders bat ideas around and discuss our projects, there was for a day or two what might be described as a "heated" discussion which took place as we hammered out one of our latest projects. Before long, raw feelings were exposed around what I went on to describe to online leaders as power, ego, self-interest, and conflict, and it seems some people experienced discomfort around possible compromise.

In 1997 my nephew, Tyree, gave me a book called Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). This book is Alinsky's summation of his experiences as a veteran community organizer. One of his chapters is named 'A Word about Words,' explaining to us how passions of mankind have boiled over into all areas of political life, including its vocabulary. Words may be loaded with scorn and reproach, bring shame or disgrace, and apparent disrespect. Discoloration attaches to words prevalent in the language of politics, and it is within this context that Alinsky pauses "for a word about words" -words such as power, self-interest, compromise, ego and conflict.

I shared this old lesson with our community leaders over the emotional e-list, knowing as I wrote them that I'd pass these same words on to those who work with volunteers and friends on issues of social justice.

All or any words may make us squirm, even if just a little. Think about yourself as I often do - our shared journey into activism, organizing the loved one's of drug war prisoners. The negatives attached to these words should encourage soul searching as we read them, but it's worthwhile to look at what these words really mean.

When we say, "Let's harness the energy," it's simply a more comfortable way to say, "Let's get power." Why dilute the meaning by using purifying synonyms. Yes! Power to the people. What is not genuine or necessary about that desire?

Self-interest, like power, wears the black shroud of negativism and suspicion. Confusion arises when the synonym for self-interest is interpreted mostly as selfishness. Thus, to have self-interest is unfairly associated in many a mind with things that are repugnant, bad, and even mean. But when our organization was forming, and I had to convince people who showed interest in helping - it was self-interest that motivated me.

I want to get my brother, Gary Callahan, released from sickening injustice and home from prison. I grew desperate after realizing there is no justice in the war on drugs, and so - self-serving, I went the next step. It didn't take long to figure out that to serve myself I'd have to find and help unite a lot of other self-serving people - ordinary folks like me who wanted their loved ones home.

When the word compromise is uttered, do you unconsciously and quickly conger up images of betrayal of ideals, surrender of moral principles? For a woman to lose her virginity was once called a "compromised" woman. Take another look, and you will see compromise to be a key word in our struggle. If it is true that we work for a free and open society, that suggests we live in a constant state of conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises. If we can't have compromise - are we not totalitarian? A free and open society is assumed to appreciate and embrace the word compromise.

Ego - don't we just hate the mention of it? But for the woman or man involved in struggle, it takes complete self-confidence to win, or the battle is lost before it is even begun. Ego, Alinsky urges us, should not be confused with "egotism", that human quality revealed by flashes of arrogance, vanity, impatience and contempt. Ego is simply an unreserved confidence in one's ability to accept without fear or worry that the odds are always against us. Having this common understanding of ego, he or she is a 'doer' and does. The thought of "copping out" never stays with him for more than a fleeting moment; life is action.

Conflict ought not to cause us discomfort either; for embracing conflict is the path to resolution. It is an essential core of a free and open society, and the essential ingredient for what follows failure: success. If one were to project the democratic way of life - or the democratic way that our Coalition grows - in the form of a musical score, its major theme might be the harmony of dissonance. It is this harmony of dissonance, building, growing, and learning that that will lead to justice and freedom for those we love.

In love and struggle,