Sunday, February 20, 2011

February Book: Each One Teach One by Ron Cassanova

This month's reading group started out with discussions of Egypt's uprising and comments from last month's group meeting in Chicago (thank you Lew! and whoever sent the poem). We read the comments from Chicago and thought about the ideas of 'limits' to resistance that
Poor People's Movements discussed. Daniel thought that there were few limits to success in Egypt, as people really made the ouster of the president happen. Others questioned whether the 'limits' would be visible later, after who takes power and what forms of power are enacted, are shaped. Larger questions of 'democracy' came up with various responses being :
a) we don't really know what it is like to be free b.c we are always already being tracked even when we leisure (i.e. passports) b) should democracy be for everyone? what do we know about the contexts of other places/people and c) the U.S. is no more 'democratic' than it is authoritarian, for instance we do reelect new people every few years but the same interests of power are represented, thus we are no different than Mubarak's Egypt or other single-leader-for-decades nations (or put another way 'the face changes but everything stays the same').

Concerning Each One, Teach One the group discussion often came to 2 reoccurring questions: the role of government and should we 'help' people who 'abuse' the help. For the second question, Mustafa gave an example: Old man John who marches to DC with disabled feet goes and buys alcohol for everyone. I, and several others, felt that D+A issues represented in the book got in the way of the discussion--so Cassanova was not a 'model' homeless person (as in the Rosa Parks of a movement), but this should not deter our duty/desire/need to find homes for everyone who needs them. The D+A issue came up for the one group member who said he was both homeless and addicted at one time. This man felt that Cassanova was just learning the 'laws of consequences', as he did: if you spend your money on drugs and alcohol, you will not be able to pay rent. Still others found Cassanova's personality likable and his determination laudable. Here are thoughts from Cragg, who wrote a response this month:

"Each One Teach One lived up to its name. It was informative, provocative and inflammatory. Also the book helped reshape my perception of the homelessness plight in America and that of poverty as well.
I'll admit, like many of the college students that Cassonova spoke with during his speaking engagements (and the general public alike) I had a bias towards the institutions that we have in place to stand as a vanguard for the people that are homeless. I thought they did just that.
Never being homeless myself, or visiting a shelter, I was always under the assumption that it was a place that served as a temporary residence, as stepping stone to help people find low income houses, employment and overall, help them reintegrate back among the mainstream of society. Now I see that's not the case. For many of them, the bottom line is profit, filing the bed space, sometimes by any means to secure financial subsidiaries from the government. What angered me was that they promoted alcoholism (even distributed it), supported drug usage (by not banning it) and aided to a violent environment by allowing weapons on the premises. What I found sad was that some of the places Casanova described was worse than prison, or similar to them in a sense and that's unacceptable. The book also shed light on a statistical abnormality that's found in the plight of the homeless. That is, not all of the people that are homeless are unemployed. Many of them work part time, some even full time, but the pay is so low, sometimes below absolute poverty, that many find themselves homeless. What's even more staggering is that the children actually are the most disenfranchised by this abnormality.
One thing that stood out the most to me from reading this book was the distinction that Casanova made between advocate and activism. I always believed that they were one in the same. Then I defined them, advocate--one who pleads one's cause, then activist--a doctrine or practice that emphasizes vigorously for political ends, or better--to act.
I like that he found his calling and strived for the uplifting of a class of people that we ordinarily overlook or shun. I will leave with this aphorism "We are all only one check away from being homeless".

Comments from Allan Gomez of the Mess Hall reading group:

My initial reactions to EOTO, were a little frustrated to say the least. I felt like the book could have easily been about 50-70 pages shorter and it just seemed to take a long time getting to something “good.” Or inspiring or fill-in-the-blank, but it just seemed to be on treadmill of seemingly mundane detail. This made it a little difficult to really get into at first. Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting, but just not very exceptional. I kept thinking about Dwight Abbot’s “I Cried You Didn’t Listen,” which I think does a better job of outlining the flaws in criminal justice systems for youth and adults, and I a much more fluid way. I would recommend this book for quick, but harsh read.

Once I got past this knee-jerk reaction, I was able to soak in the book a little more and appreciate the nuance. Ron’s story I realize (or feel rather) is not meant to be a critique of the systemic inequities he faces, but rather a chronicling of what led to Casanova’s political awakening. And it is a long windy road that takes him from indifference to acting on principle. Identifying (slowly, but surely) the different needs he is missing in his life, and the reasons why he self-destructs form time to time. Looking at it now, I think the dragged-out feeling and treadmill aspect is almost a crucial component in the story telling. Even though he does attempt to describe a “lightbulb” moment, there really isn’t a some magic bullet that shakes people into a political consciousness. In the book , this happens over the course of a lot of small moments that build the foundation for bigger moments. I think the book is littered with these small moments that ultimately lead to a deeper understanding of what needs to be done as well why it needs to be done.

This made me think about my own political awakening and how it had not come about from a hackey-sack circle on a college campus, but rather from a long windy road from anger and nihilism to critique and organizing. With a lot of missteps, to say the least, along the way. I think during our discussions, someone brought up the question of audience for the book, and it made me think about how this book can serve to remind people that having agency does not mean you are BAM! perfectly politically conscious from one day to the next, but it is something you build on constantly. It also makes me think about how we create myths out of leaders, which serve to undermine the idea that every person is a leader just as every person is flawed, too. How myths make a Martin Luther King, Emma Goldman, Che Guevara, and Mother Jones, seem unreachable to the average human. When, in fact, history is made up of a sea of human beings acting according to their principles, not one individual superhuman leading the flock.

I think, for me, the key part about the book is about gaining agency and what it can ultimately lead to. Kind of like a very real victory is in the trying. I think in the world of benchmarks and quantitative analysis of success, return on investment, and absolute material gains, this reminds us of how uphill the battle can be for people who have had not much hope (or buy-in into the system) for so long. What does that say about those of us that range from ideas of reform and electoral politics to drop-out/off-grid lifestyles and symbolic appreciation of a sense of agency. How much buy-in are we still clinging on to. Who is really challenging where we are as individuals and how far we have to grow, no matter where we start from?


Response from Jennifer:

I’ve got what seems like an appropriate perspective from Joseph Cambell. He describes the ‘machine’ as the influences at work upon us – the media, the government, the church, etc. He asks, “What a wonderful power the machine gives you, but, is it going to overpower you?”

He adds, “The minute you take the dictation (of the machine) instead of the dictation of your own eternity, you have capitulated to the devil, and you are in hell.”


It seems easy enough to connect this idea with the issues we’ve discussed about ulterior motives that seem to arise out of organized movements. It is a bizarre irony that as movements become stronger and organized, they seem to have the tendency to move further away from the initial injustice being addressed. Something else has taken charge, and the dictation comes from elsewhere. Not good, according to Campbell.

But Joseph Campbell was a mythologist, so his perspectives come from his belief that each person has a mission, a ‘bliss,’ or a ‘push’ of one’s existence to both discover and follow. I’m drawn back to this idea regarding many of the responses so far, not just the idea of the organized movement ending up in the hands of ‘others.’ From drugs & alcohol, to welfare, to the poem about the loom, there is a spiritual energy that is often left out of equations that are designed to shed light on social circumstance. If you don’t like the word ‘spiritual’ it’s almost just as good to think of it as a psychological aspect that is also involved.

Here my ideas might get messy, but I’d like to share them. This discussion is being hosted by a group called Mess Hall, after all.

So there’s this activist called Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote a book called ‘Nickel and Dimed.’ She pretended she had no credentials like education, experience, etc., and went out on an experiment in the low-wage world. As expected she had a hard time of it, and like many poor people, ended up actually paying more than the going rate for basic necessities. When your resources are limited, it’s actually ‘cheaper’ to do things the more expensive way, and this she discovered when she couldn’t afford an apartment, with its utilities, expenses, and security deposit, but she could scrape together a week-to- week stay in a motel, actually much more expensive in the long run. This is the spiral that traps a lot of people. If you’ve got $5 to spend on food, and the fairly priced grocery store is a bus ride away at $2.25 round trip, it somehow becomes cheaper to shop in the corner store where prices are jacked up 50 to 100%. And so it goes and goes and goes. With just barely enough to pay for the cheap apartment and frugal food choices, here

she is paying weekly motel rates and double priced food items. Time to smile at the exploitative boss.If you haven’t been in this situation, then you’ve got family. Period. That’s the way I see it.

So there was another author who set out on the same mission to pretend to be poor. This was a strong healthy boy named Adam Shepherd who had just graduated from college and didn’t like the ‘victim mentality’ expressed in Ehrenreich’s book. He called his book ‘Scratch Beginnings – Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.’ This optimistic young man, who grew up eating healthy food and reading books in a warm house with his happy parents, was able to reach his goal of saving $2500, buying a truck, and living in a furnished apartment within one year.

I imagine that my resentment is not escaping the reader. The problem with entitlements, and determining who ‘deserves’ aid etc. is just this type of snide one-seasoned perspective. The type of people who think that ‘if I can do it, you can do it’ are taking out of the equation the psychological aspects that do indeed affect it. Why didn’t Ron Casanova rise right out of poverty and furnish his own little apartment and buy a truck? Certainly it can be done.

I worked briefly as a high school English teacher in a low-income / all black school on 89th Street. This same one-seasoned perspective was adopted by the schools, namely, that every child can learn. Well that’s obvious. What a ridiculous credo to use as a philosophical mission. It’s just as asinine as the college boy proving he could save money in a year. Obviously it can be done, the issue is why, if these things are so humanly and reasonably attainable, are they escaping the reach of so many? Unless what we’ve truly got is a bunch of dumb ass people in high school, and a bunch of homeless alcoholics, then something else is at play here.

So this is probably where the loom comes in, the Kahlil Gibran image. I think that connection is obvious, but how we actually go about accounting for one another is much more...vague. One of the Danville residents wrote about movement organizers being too far reaching or idealistic in their goals. Maybe it’s just the opposite. Maybe they’re not far reaching or idealistic enough. Ideally, the Welfare Movement would have gone much further than to push to grant, legally, the aid entitled. Ideally there would have been structures for education, child care, training, etc? Because, at last, back to the Joseph Campbell stuff, these folks on the welfare check are allowing their lives to be dictated by something other than themselves. And so the loom keeps looming, because the missing thread is how to help change that, how to help change people. Perhaps the movements are only trying to change the system. That’s how I’ve always interpreted the phrase ‘Each One Teach One.’ It begins as an independent journey, a spiritual one, and if you can get yourself on the right path, you can branch out to others.


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