Communities and Congregations: a conversation with Gerald Taylor

Please join us for a conversation with Gerald Taylor about organizing at the intersection of churches and other civic groups, and how that organizing interacts with politics in NC. Free and open to the public. Refreshments served. Parking provided in the Bryan Center Garage (PGIV)RSVP on the web form to receive your parking pass and instructions. Email amber.diaz@duke.edu for more information or questions about parking.

Gerald Taylor is one of the most creative experienced organizers and strategic campaign planners and trainers in the country. For nearly 35 years, he was a national senior organizer of the IAF and for 26 of those years the IAF’s Southeast Regional Director. He retired from the IAF in 2014. In 2015, he co-founded Advance Carolina a state-wide 501c(4). Advance is creating a new mechanism for building democratic power and governance by combining the best of social media and respectful relational organizing. He has trained thousands of Clergy, lay leaders, unions’ staff and leaders, government and private sector institutional leaders over the past forty years and lectured at colleges and universities including Duke University, Vanderbilt University, and UNC Chapel-Hill on theories of social change and community organizing.

Hosted by the faculty working group on race, religion, and politics, supported by an Intellectual Community Planning Grant from the Duke University Office of the Provost. Co-sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Religions and Public Life at KIE.

Don’t Shoot, I’m Guilty


It’s me.

I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to think–that we are still pretty guilty of being racist.

Hi, my name is Gautam and I’ll be appearing on this blog throughout this year. I’ll usually try to keep it light and fun and hip and cool and relevant to however the kids these days like to do things around here, but today will be a little different.

Last week, a group that came to stock the East Campus Bridge’s walls with issues that were important to them in the context of the upcoming election came found slurs and malicious threats instead of the typical graffiti and events that you probably ignored. After documenting what was written and as (I’m assuming) fans of poetic justice, they quickly smothered the offending phrases with their own messages.

There is real hurt–individuals do feel unsafe inhabiting the same campus with those that think it is ok to use those words. It really is an injustice. But the question should not really be how we should react to achieve justice. Instead of looking for how we can get whoever painted those words to repent, we should look to making sure no one feels like it is ok to paint it in the first place. Instead of chasing the most obvious carrot hung in front of us by some sadist equestrian, we should buck the trend.

What I mean is that it is really easy to say that it was just one sociopath who just wanted to ruffle some feathers ( know, because that was my first reaction, too). So as a society,  we took some advice from Patrick Star to take all the guilt and externalize it.

But this solves nothing. Individuals are still affected by the presence of hate speech, regardless of who takes the blame. Externalizing the guilt invites me and others to be complacent in saying, “I’m cool. Don’t look at me. I’m not racist. I didn’t write that. I love my one black friend. He says I’m cool, too.” It’s the bystander effect. It happens all the time, but do we want to accept that?

I think real justice will come in a form that will not be obvious to us. Equality should be so ingrained into society that we do not notice it: I’m a PC/Linux guy, but I have to give a lot of respect to Apple for their design. A friend recently swapped out his hard drive for a much faster solid state drive on his MacBook. It’s cool and hip and can load Facebook like 0.3x faster, but now it’s physically way off balance. We don’t realize that Apple expends a great deal of its resources to perfectly plan out the placement of the components and weight it so that it is even. And being a PC guy, I can tell you that DEFINITELY has not been the case for my laptops. We do not realize it because we are not supposed to. In an even world, we are not supposed to know that there is a design in place to compensate for inherent inequities.

Bringing it back, I think we will only know that justice was achieved when we do not have these kinds of incidents. We will only “solve” the problem when there is not an incident to react to. By pushing the blame away, we lose any pull to act, and without that, there is no reason for anybody to change, especially since hate is much easier in anonymity. We will continue chasing one measly carrot while carrying a deadweight for miles unless we buck it and find our own sustenance. Or just curb stomping that horse rider.

So the question becomes: “Since these incidents keep happening, how do we influence others to stop thinking that hate speech is ok?” or “How do we influence people to recognize hate speech as hate speech?” or “How do we influence people to practice not only tolerance but understanding?”

On the flip-side, we know that there are individuals that truly lack empathy. Should we change our behavior depending on where it came from?


A Fan’s Moral Imperative: Is Watching Football Ethical?

To prepare themselves for the Super Bowl yesterday, many people are asked themselves some important questions: What kind of dip will I make? How much beer do I need to buy? Will the toss be heads or tails? Which commercial will be the best? Will it be the 49ers or the Ravens? I can certainly relate to most of these concerns (though, I must admit that once the Redskins lost, I was just not invested in the postseason). But, maybe the question that few, if any, are asking themselves is the one that’s the most important: is watching football ethical?

For lifelong football fans, myself included, this might be a shocking question. Perhaps it seems like something only those in high academics would debate. But, with the recent death of Junior Seau, the ethicality of football has been front and center. For those of you who don’t follow the sports world, Junior Seau was a linebacker who played most famously with the San Diego Chargers, becoming a sports icon in the San Diego area. Seau retired in 2010, after playing since high school. In 2012, he committed suicide at age 43. Later, it was revealed that Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of chronic brain damage that has been discovered in other NFL players who died, as well. For those who knew Seau, they say the last few months of his life were marked with abnormal behavior. Just this month, the Seau family sued the NFL over the brain injuries he sustained during his career as a linebacker.

My first reaction to hearing about Seau’s tragic suicide was probably similar to many others who followed the story. Though terribly sad, Seau chose to play football and knew the injuries were a risk. Sure, the NFL could have provided more medical and psychological help to its players once they retired, but it doesn’t seem like we can hold them responsible for his death, right? But, then I started reading more and more about the perils of professional football.

In 2010 Malcolm Gladwell penned what has since become a rather famous op-ed in the New Yorker comparing football to dog fighting. Gladwell recounted the story dozens of former NFL and college players who are, or were, suffering from brain injuries. Line players can suffer up to 1,000 hits in the head in just one season. All these head injuries seem to have a real and scary effect on the players. Seau’s suicide wasn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last. In 2006, Andre Waters, a defensive back, shot himself; Owen Thomas, a defensive end and former UPenn captain, hung himself; retired safety Dave Duerson shot himself in 2011; and former safety Ray Easterling shot himself just a week before Seau did. This is not an isolated incident.

But, football players choose to play football. They are never forced to play, and in fact few who desire to play at the highest levels achieve it. Moreover, they’re getting paid a pretty good sum of money, so that makes up for possible injuries and risk…right? The flip side of this free will argument is that football is, as BuzzFeed writer Kevin Lincoln wrote, “the contemporary equivalent of gladiatorial combat…killing young men slowly…our loyalty condones this and makes it not only acceptable but wildly profitable.”

Do both these arguments have merit? Certainly, no one is ever forced to play, but the cult of adoration surrounding football creates a whirlwind that becomes hard to stop. Perhaps most alarming is that these dangerous hits don’t start at the college level, or even high school. It starts in elementary school with Pop Warner. Moreover, it’s not as if the trauma of multiple hits to the head begins when a player actually makes it into professional football. It begins all the way back in elementary school and slowly builds. College athletes aren’t even paid for the risks they are taking. Should we really let children play a game we know to be dangerous and have potentially life-altering effects? And, football hits have gotten more severe over time as players get faster and bigger. Even President Obama shared some concerns about this in a recent interview, saying that although the NFL players are getting paid, “as we start thinking about the pipeline, Pop Warner, high school, college, I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to make the sport safer.”

Moreover, why isn’t the NFL doing more to help the current players and those entering the game at a young age. Rather than address the physical and psychological traumas of football, the NFL constantly finds ways to obfuscate and ignore the issue. It will be interesting to see what their reaction to the Seau family suit will be

But, even if the NFL were more open with their players about the potentially behavior-altering, traumatic nature of football, what else could they do? Short of banning football or capping how long players can play (which seems unlikely given the extraordinary pay incentives and loyal fanbase), as long as people keep watching football, football will still be played. So, do we have an ethical imperative to stop watching football? Should we demand real change in the NFL’s policies and incentive system in order to protect the players? Are we contributing to the disturbingly long litany of former NFL players who have committed suicide or been seriously affected by brain injuries?

It’s hard for me to address these questions. I have always loved football. I’ve watched games with my dad since I can remember. I have many good memories of Duke Football game days, Super Bowl parties, and Friday night games in high school. It’s not something that’s easy for me to come to terms with—yet, I can’t deny how troubling I find all the evidence mounted up against the NFL. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that yesterday I was thinking about a lot more than what kind of wings I should get for my Super Bowl party.  

What are our toys trying to tell us?

When you open newly bought Halloween decorations, the last thing you expect to find between two headstones is a cry for help from Chinese labor camp workers across the world. That is exactly what happened to one US shopper at a K-Mart in Oregon. This woman was shocked at the explicit message inscribed in a letter inside the box she purchased.

Normally, when we buy items at a store, there is no indication of how, where, and under what conditions the product was made. Some of us may not care how products are made, but even for those who do want to be ethical consumers, it can be difficult to do so. This may be for a number of reasons including the higher cost of ethically made goods, the cynicism that we cannot make a difference, and the lack of information available to us. Shana Starobin’s Good Question, “What should we eat?” gives excellent insight into the challenges that consumers face in being aware and capable of eating, or shopping, ethically.

Imagine if every product came with a letter similar to this one, detailing the ethical or unethical practices that went into making the product. The letter, if found to be legitimate, certainly details worrisome labor practices in China. The note reads:  People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer (punishment), beat and rude remark. Nearly no payment (10 yuan/1 month).” There was also a desperate plea for readers to pass the letter onto the World Human Rights Organization. Although this is not a real organization, the shopper passed the letter onto the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is currently investigating the case.

What obligations does the shopper now have? Will she and should she stop purchasing these products?

For the next few months, she may check regularly to see what country and conditions different products are made in. Yet, she will quickly realize that much of this information is hard to find. Unlike medicines and tobacco products, our everyday purchases do not come with warning labels telling us the dangers created by the products themselves. Imagine what the world might look like, if this was not the case. You might stop yourself from buying Chris Brown CD’s if it had a label that read “WARNING: Do not buy this album! This man beats women.”

In the modern global market, goods are typically assembled in multiple countries with differing laws. Global corporations do not have any legal obligation to detail their labor practices to the public, nor do most people take the time to investigate for themselves. Given this information asymmetry, we often continue to make purchases without second thought of what effect they may be having for laborers in other parts of the world.

Even if this incident opens our eyes to unethical practices, will it change the way consumers and corporations act? If US consumers resolve to boycott products made in China (which would be nearly impossible), we will just be purchasing alternatives manufactured by sweatshops in India, Indonesia, or the Philippines. There may not be better alternatives. Furthermore, a boycott of Chinese goods could complicate global markets, harming American and Chinese laborers.

Maybe consumer boycotts are actually ineffective in the larger scheme of things, and it is better for us to pressure governments and advocate for change that way.  Or maybe the reason the laborers wrote to this woman, is because they know that consumers can do something to change the situation. As everyday shoppers, we may not know how to influence macroeconomic and government policies, but our consumer purchasing power may be our way to make a difference.

If I buy products made from Chinese sweatshops, does that not make me at least somewhat responsible for the state that these laborers are in? It is much easier to convince ourselves that these issues are out of our control, but I wonder if they are actually entirely determined by what our hands put into our shopping carts.

What do you think our responsibility as consumers is and how should we respond to this plea for help?

Paid to Protest?

Last November, a peaceful UC Davis student protest associated with the Occupy movement led to pretty big scandal surrounding police brutality when 21 students were pepper sprayed by campus police, captured in this video:

While there was once a great deal of fury surrounding the actions of the campus police, sympathy for the victims is plunging now that the results of the settlement have finally arrived. The amount that the University of California will cough up to each student as compensation for last year’s incident?


Surprised? Jealous? Don’t give a care?

There’s no denying this case cost a pretty penny. In total, $730,000 was awarded to the plaintiffs, plus $250,000 in costs and attorney fees. In addition, $100,000 was set aside for other victims yet to be identified. It seems like these funds could have been allocated differently in a way that could have benefitted the entire student body. Perhaps it could have gone towards programs that promoted the original goals of the protestors: the budget cuts and tuition hikes. On the other hand, some of the students endured pain for days, were treated at a hospital for chemical burns, or experienced nightmares and panic attacks related to the frightening day. All of these things could have had a negative impact on grades, although that’s hard to measure.

In support of the victims, Michael Risher, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said in a statement, “If the First Amendment means anything, it’s that students should be able to exercise their free speech-rights on their college campus without being afraid of police violence. What happened on November 18 was among the worst examples of police violence against student demonstrators that we’ve seen in a generation. The settlement should be a wake-up call for other universities and police departments.”

Sometimes seemingly excessive penalties are justified by their ability to set a precedent to other institutions, ensuring the wrongful actions are never repeated in the future. Penn State Football, anyone? It’s harder for people to see it this way though, leaving many to question whether, at face value, the consequences fit the offense. Is being unjustly pepper sprayed really worth $30,000?

Debra J. Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle thinks the protesters were completely in the wrong for making a fuss in the first place and that this settlement only encourages disorderly behavior. Referring to the protesters as “privileged recipients of a top-notch university education partially subsidized by California taxpayers,” she adds, “Students surrounded campus cops, who warned students that if they didn’t disperse, they would be subject to the use of force and pepper spray. They stayed. They videotaped. They sued. That’s how so-called civil libertarians conquer. They break rules designed not to squelch free speech, but to protect everyone’s right to public space. Then they sue, secure in the knowledge that state officials will settle with them.”

So were the students really asking for it? Maybe I missed something, but it looked like the students are sitting tranquilly, even as the police get right in their faces with an inflammatory gas. The police officer doesn’t spray them out of concern for his immediate safety, but out of spite that the protesters aren’t obeying his orders to disperse.

But by participating in a protest where you are knowingly breaking a law or a campus rule, what risks are you consenting to? Are you agreeing to be arrested or mistreated, like the civil rights activists of the past? Is brutality part of the power of civil disobedience? f not, where do your personal boundaries lie and when should you give up and comply with authority figures? If you are violated, should you be compensated, and what should that look like?

In the case of UC Davis, can we assign a sum of money, uniform to all the victims, that captures the effect of this incident?