Time for Straight Talk, Straight Answers

“Don’t play the blame game.” That’s the Republicans new mantra. That’s their way of sidetracking the obvious complicity of the Bush Administration in this government’s abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina’s destructive swathe through the Gulf Coast.

Bush has even called for a major investigation – which wastes more tax dollars, since no one has the decency to stand up and say they made mistakes. The government would rather waste time, energy, and money (ours, not theirs) to see if those mistakes can be unearthed by those who weren’t even there, or buried under the mountain of information that is generated in such investigations (remember the 9/11 report, which articulated clear negligence on the part of US intelligence agencies and the Bush Administration, although no one faced prosecution or serious accountability).

The American people, however, know what happened (remember Lincoln’s adage – “you can fool all the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time”).

We know that FEMA was cut 44 percent from its proposed budget earlier this year. We know that millions in levee repairs in New Orleans were routed to the Iraq War and other Bush priorities (for example, an island of 50 people in Alaska received more than $500 million to construct a bridge, although these people already have ferries to transport them).

We know that federal officials denied or failed to respond to assistance from other cities and relief agencies (Chicago, for example, had truckloads of food, supplies, equipment, and manpower ready to go, but were not given the okay). We know that people were routed into the Superdome and the Convention Center without a plan to get them supplies, facilities, or protection (there were reports of suicides, people beaten and killed, a child raped and murdered, babies with slit throats, and more – although most of these have yet to be substantiated).

We know that Bush – after weeks of vacation – attended photo-op events in Southern California during the worse of the storm’s assault – and Condoleeza Rice was seen shopping in New York City during her vacation until called back to Washington DC after about a week (only to make a statement that the Bush Administration did not hate black people, as if this alone can assuage the reality of what we saw).

We know that countries like Venezuela and Cuba – long attacked by the government and the media as enemies of “American freedom” – were prepared to send doctors, oil, equipment, and funds, yet the Bush Administration has still not allowed this to happen (although people on the Gulf Coast badly need doctors – people died after the storm because of lack of doctors).

I can go on and on – we can get these stories and more on the daily reports from news sources (some reporters have awakened and righteously challenged the government’s inept response and tired excuses).

We don’t need any more investigations – unless it’s to seriously lay bare what actually happened, where the flaws existed, who’s responsible, and what affirmative steps will be taken to guarantee this will never happen again.

Something the people of the Gulf Coast and the rest of the country have long deserved. A straight story. True accountability. Real changes.

Yeah, right.

While stories of looting, rapes, and beatings were oft repeated (under such distress, some people go crazy, some decide that people’s lives are more important than property, and, some – mind you, this was still a minority – just don’t give a damn), other stories told of heroic acts: a six-year-old leading six other children younger than him (including a baby in his arms), all holding hands, among evacuees lost after rescue teams placed them on a highway; a man who used a leaking aluminum boat to save 200 people; how others, including strangers, united in teams at a second-floor of a school to get food and supplies until they could be saved; how millions of people, probably without much means themselves, offered their homes, their cars, their time, and money to immediately help those in the disaster zones; how cooperation, caring, and real planning can and has always worked when most needed.

Take Cuba again – last year Hurricane Ivan threatened to destroy a major portion of the country and kill tens of thousands. Through careful planning and social cooperation, 1.5 million people were evacuated to higher ground. No lives were lost when Ivan finally hit.

We deserve at least this much – with much more resources at our disposal.

Capitalism is at the root of the madness we’re seeing: Where police are forced to shoot and ward off looters, and letting food rot, instead of opening up the stores and handing them to the people who need it. Where those with means were allowed to leave New Orleans, leaving those who didn’t have means to fend for themselves. Where buses that have been used to transport tens of thousands to Houston’s Astrodome and other locations were unavailable for the poor before the storm hit. And where close to $60 billion dollars has been allocated so far by the government, when only millions were required to prepare New Orleans and most of the Gulf Coast for the inevitable hurricanes everyone predicted.

Yes, now the government, corporations, cities, other countries, relief agencies, churches, and people with very little to begin with, are providing aid in an amazing outpouring of immense magnitude.

But what about before the storms hit? Before another 9/11? When people most need the help not to be poor, neglected, and abandoned?

It’s time to ask the truly hard questions. It’s time to clarify the possible and powerful ways to go beyond the needs of a few rich capitalists who dictate who lives and dies in this country. The fact is – most of those people didn’t have to die. The fact is it’s within our power to do something about it. The fact is capitalism is the biggest block to true human freedom, protection, and well-being on earth. If we learn anything at all, we should learn that we, the people, organized, conscious, and imaginative, can do better.
Read more

Every Hour of Every Day

Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of much of the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans, is heart-rending and too tragic for words. My prayers go out to all the people of this great city, and cities like Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi and other stricken areas.

To help, I’ve donated the profits of my poetry/music CD, “My Name’s Not Rodriguez,” from sales at CD Baby.com to relief efforts. Other efforts on my part will also be considered.

I was supposed to be in New Orleans in November – a trip I’m sure will not happen. Of course, the scope of the disaster renders such a concern to dust. The people, the people, they are what matters – and we need to do more to make sure they are safe, healthy, and given adequate resources to rebuild.

However, I have to emphatically say – much of this tragedy could have been averted, something we’ve learned from far too many other “natural” disasters.

The chaos, floating bodies, lack of facilities, looting, stranded people, and more is not just the result of Mother Nature. Government bodies, while also doing some heroic labors, also failed.

One example: People were told to evacuate before Katrina hit New Orleans (it had already tore up parts of Florida). Apparently close to 80 percent of the people in that city did. However, many who were left behind were those who couldn’t leave: They were the poorest, those without cars or money for gas, buses or trains. The majority of these people were African Americans. They are the main ones crammed into the Superdome and the Convention Center, most of the dead and the homeless.

Yes, many of them have been “looting,” some even shooting at rescuers. But let me tell you, if food, medical supplies, water, toilets, and other necessities become nonexistent, I’d probably do the same (besides most of the people in New Orleans are not “looting”).

In the long run, who cares about Wal-Mart or the other stores being broken into? How can we give more priority to inanimate products than people who are dying, starving, and becoming more desperate by the hour? I saw rescue efforts abandoned by law enforcement and National Guard personnel to “stop the looters.” Who’s giving the message that products and things are more important than people?

Unfortunately, we are.

There were even instances of photo captions on the Internet and newspapers of black people said to be ‘looting” while white people doing the same thing were said to be “finding.” Come on!

It’s like the US military making sure the oilfields and corporate offices were secured in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq while museums and whole neighborhoods were allowed to be destroyed and/or looted. We protect the capitalism system at all costs – even at the costs of our lives and our rational minds.

Here are some questions: Why didn’t the government evacuate the poor people knowing that Katrina was going to devastate New Orleans (this was common knowledge way before the hurricane hit)? It would have averted the madness we’re seeing today – and the death.

Why did the government drastically cut FEMA and other disaster relief programs in states across the country, but, in particularly, around the Gulf Coast where engineers and others have known hurricanes could devastate the area at any time? The levees that broke in New Orleans were no surprise to those who have been warning about this for decades.

Why did President Bush wait almost three days before responding to the disaster that was unfolding on every TV, radio, and newspaper around the country? Then when he did, he even had to admit the results were sporadic and inadequate.

I’ll tell you why: Because Republicans and their Democrat cronies made policy decisions and budget cuts – even in the face of expert warning – to fuel a disastrous war and to maintain the narrow interests of their corporate-sponsors.

Someone has to be held accountable.

Nature is nature – it is bountiful and destructive. Human beings are human beings – we can do courageous, amazing things with technology, our hearts, and our minds, yet we can also fly in the face of reality and destroy each other more efficiently than nature itself can do.

In the end the poor pay the price (look at what happened when the Tsunami hit Southeast Asia). These aren’t just God-driven disasters; these are also within the purview of policy makers and so-called leaders. Don’t blame God for that – blame the people who decided war and profits were more important than the well-being of all the people.

Unfortunately, they make these decisions every hour of every day.
Read more

In Honor of Two Great Peace Warriors

This is to honor two important and generous men: Elegba Earl and Joe Ranft. They were good friends of mine. They were also active in peace and the struggle for men to heal, become fuller in life, and to help transform this world into a more just and healthy one.

Elegba was one of the five brave Watts residents who walked into rival gang territory to stop the Bloods and Crips gang warfare some 13 years ago. Since then, he participated in a number of organizations like the Community Self-Determination Institute and other peace and justice organizations.

Joe was one of the four founders of Pixar Films, which produced such award-winning films like “Toy Story,” “Nemo,” and “The Incredibles.” He hooked up with a number of the Watts peace warriors and helped bring some of Pixar’s resources to their assistance.

Elegba and Joe met at the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation’s Annual Men’s Conferences in the Woodlands Camp, Mendocino, CA, where I have been a teacher and poet for a decade, along with activists like Michaal Meade, Mosaic’s founder; Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock; and Orland Bishop of Shade Tree Mentoring in South Central LA.

Elegba and Joe were worlds apart – a black ghetto leader and an upper-middle class white animator. But in the men’s conferences, they shared stories, poems, ideas, emotions, and visions. They became fast friends and peace collaborators.

On Tuesday, August 16, the men were driving to the Mendocino conference with another Watts peace activist, Eric Fryerson. Some 11 miles from their destination, the car they were in became crowded by another vehicle. In trying to move over, they overcorrected a couple of times and then fell about 120 feet down an embankment into the Navarro River. Eric was able to get out. Elegba and Joe didn’t make it.

As you can imagine, we were all devastated when we heard the news. Eric was in the hospital and as soon as his lacerations and other injuries were attended to, he requested to reconnect with our group. We had a hard time continuing, but we knew we had to – Elegba and Joe died trying to get to our gathering. We mostly held a long week-long funeral, but also sustained some intense dialogues, workshops, and a number of morning practices and rituals. I was particularly moved by the men’s quality of listening – they were particularly present for the young people, some from the bloody streets of Boyle Heights/East LA and Watts, who needed to be heard and helped, along with others.

I attended Joe’s funeral in Mill Valley near San Francisco soon after leaving the conference. Tomorrow I’ll be at Elegba’s memorial in South LA.

The work we do to help transform lives must go on. For years, we have helped each other to become better, smarter, more connected and active men. It’s difficult work – we’ve also lost a few of our friends to violence, suicide, diseases, and prison. But the passing of Elegba and Joe hit us particularly hard. I send my deepest condolences to the families, friends, and colleagues of Elegba and Joe.

Be well, my friends, on your journey to the great ancestors. Our prayers will accompany you. But more so, your example will guide us as we carry on the work you both led. All my relations.
Read more

A Hummingbird at Macondo

I’m in San Antonio this week as a “chuparosa” – or hummingbird – in Sandra Cisnero’s Macondo writing workshops. I came to flit about from workshop to workshop, seminar to seminar, taking in the great writing and serious talk about writing that Macondo is known for.

Various classifications of people here include “hormigas,” the worker ant people who get much done for the workshops; “mocosos,” or snot-nosed kids, the first timers at a Macondo workshop; “chismosos,” the gossipers, who have come back from previous Macondo experiences; and “famosos,” well-known guest writers who run workshops and seminars; among others.

I’ve met amazing new writers as well some old friends who’re here to teach, learn, and interact, such as Denise Chavez, Richard Blanco, Tammy Gomez, Amada Irma Perez, and more. I love being among serious writers – I don’t get a chance to be among them on a regular basis most of the time.

I also love being among the young writers – it reminds me of the hunger, openness, and fears I had when I first started out. And with my veteran colleagues – it’s good to share what we’ve learned in the writing world, especially from the “borderland” spaces, struggling at the margins to tell our stories, our truths, our dreams (all books are a dream realizing themselves into the world).

The workshop participants and teachers are of all ages, sexual orientations, and colors: one two-year participant was born and raised in China – there are also Native Americans, African Americans, European Americans, and all kinds of Latinos (Mexican, Central American, Puerto Rican, Cuban y mas).

Sandra started these workshops more than 10 years ago. At one time, she had them at her dinner table. It has since outgrown Sandra’s house and is now held at University of Texas, San Antonio and Our Lady of the Lake University. University dormitories and local bed & breakfasts have collaborated to accommodate the participants.

Muggy days aside, it’s great to be back to this great “Mexican” city. Here being Mexicano/Chicano is in the very earth, generations upon generations. Sandra is a gracious host. It’s been 25 years since I was last in a writing workshop as a participant (I’ve taught many since then). It feels good. I will also do a seminar this week and be part of a gala reading near the end. Here’s to serious writing and serious talk about writing.
Read more

The Road to Renewal and Strength

My family and I have finally returned from our travels to Arizona. We drove into San Fernando late on Sunday evening, after a 12-hour drive from the Navajo Reservation.

To recap, we left ten days ago in our minivan to the Arizona/Mexico border, south of Tucson. I talked for around three hours to some 50 wonderful student teachers in Sierra Vista – near the Mexican border – as part of a University of Arizona program to help orient incoming teachers on the culture, values, and interests of Mexican/Chicano and other Latino students. I also read to faculty, administrators, and other students in the afternoon. I thank Cynthia McDermott and her staff or arranging these events – and for the great hospitality.

One concept I brought to their attention was Nemachtilli – the Nahuatl (Aztec/Mexika language) word for “learning.” But more is involved. It’s the unity of the spirit of learning (feminine energy) and the spirit of teaching (masculine energy), which are vital if any learning or teaching is to be going on. The link between these two sides of Nemachtilli is imagination and creativity. One of the results of a totally engaging teaching-and-learning experience is healing – for the psyche and soul from trauma, confusion, and even “cultural” brainwashing.

I brought up the same concept to Tucson Unified School teachers at a conference sponsored by the University of Arizona Raza Studies Department (Augustine Romero, head of the Raza Studies Department, hosted my stay and made sure I had a receptive group to address). Before hitting Tucson, the family first went to Bisbee for a day and evening. I was always intrigued by the town after once participating in the now-defunct Bisbee Poetry Festival many years ago. We stayed at the “officially” haunted Copper Queen Hotel (paranormal experts have cited 13 entities there). We also did the Queen Copper Mine tour, and walks around the artists/writers/hippie community that emerged after the mines closed around 1975.

In Tucson, I spent a day with the teachers – around 80 or so. I did the morning keynote talk and conducted two breakout sessions after lunch. Again, I had a wonderful response, including fantastic Q&A periods. Of course, I talked about new ideas around teaching, around mentoring, around creating community, and making sure all children are actively engaged in learning their whole lives (something that the present educational system fails to do with most students).

From there, the family piled into the minivan and drove the nine hours to Lukachukai, below the Chuskas Mountains on the Navajo rez near the New Mexican border. We came to visit Anthony Lee – the Navajo Road Man and Elder – who adopted my wife Trini many years ago (and consequently the whole family). We’ve been coming for ceremonies here ever since (I first came in 1997; Trini was adopted in 1999).

The whole Lee family (his wife Delores and their six children) have been wonderful toward us. They have become more “family” than my own family (who, of course, I love, although we are not close spiritually or politically). With lots of hard work, time, and energy, we prepared for another all-night prayer meeting. Many of our friends on the rez attended – in particularly John C. Smith and Floyd Begay. Much sacrifice, prayers, songs, and intense inner conflict comes with the ceremony. It’s always hard for me, but I know when it’s over, I need it. I come in broken, stressed, angry, and I come out awakened, pulled together, balanced, and renewed.

With ongoing sweat ceremonies near our home in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, and the cultural work centered around Tia Chucha’s Café & Centro Cultural we try to maintain the blessings and protections from the prayer meetings, so many miles away from the rez.

We came home safely – my son Ruben read two Harry Potter books, the latest big ones, and Little Luis read about four of the earlier ones. I came home to 800 emails and tons of regular mail. But I’m back into the blessing / protection way. I’m back to being whole for the often painful conflicts, battles, and work ahead. Tlazhokamati (thank you in Nahuatl) to all who helped along the way.
Read more

Arizona, Sun and Big Ideas

On Friday, July 22, I gathered part of my family -- my wife Trini and my two youngest boys, Ruben and Luis -- for a trip to Arizona. My daughter Andrea and my granddaughter Catalina stayed at home (Andrea had to work and continue her Mission College classes). The plan was to go to Sierra Vista, Arizona, near the US-Mexico border (and where Minutemen have held recent vigils against the undocumented), then to Tucson and finally to the Navajo Reservation (where we've tried to go at least once a year for ceremonies with our adopted family of elder/road man Anthony Lee).

It was around a nine-hour ride to Sierra Vista, including through sweltering Phoenix, which hit record highs that week (around 18 people, mostly homeless and elderly, had died). I was invited by the University of Arizona South to speak to 50 teachers-to-be (mostly Latino) for about three hours. I brought copies of my nine published books to show the group. The area around Sierra Vista had been drenched with rain from the night before. The temperatures were moderate and pleasant.

At my talk, I started out with my story about growing up as an immigrant Mexican child in South Central LA and then the East LA area. How I got involved in crime from age 7 (stealing). How I eventually joined a gang at 11, got into drugs at 12, and was in and out of jails and juvenile facilities until I was 19. But I also talked about why and how I changed my life. How I found art (painting and writing), help (mentoring), a cause (the revolutionary working class wing of the Chicano Movement), a spiritual path (eventually indigenous spiritual practices), and learning to own one's life (after I had turned my life over to a gang and to drugs, including heroin).

I also discussed how there are four major openings in the life of a person where major changes can occur -- where doors open and possibilities can be born. While change is constant and can occur anytime, these four thresholds are common among all humans.

The first is the infant developmental period from birth to around age three. Love, nurturing, holding, attention are critical if a child is to properly develop their emotions, their psyche, their being. The next opening is the pre-pubescent, when the hormones begin to kick in and a child may appear crazy. Gangs usually recruit around this time (ages 10 to 12, more or less).

The next opening is from the late teens to early twenties. This is generally the age when gang youth mature out of the gangs. This is when "school is out" and a life must be imagined and perhaps started. This is why charging youth as adults is ridiculous -- there is still room to teach, to grow, to guide. The brain is still malleable (around the mid-twenties it finally sets itself). While many miss the changes necessary for this period, most people make their major life-changing decisions then.

Again, while changes can occur at any time, the next big opening does not happen until someone is in their 40s. I have seen this even in prison. I've known guys who were incarcerated in their youth, who didn't go through the opening of their late teens and early twenties, some who had murdered and done terrible crimes. Yet in their forties, they become gentle, wise, artistic, calm.

Of course, there are people for whatever circumstances who fail to go through any of the openings for change even beyond their 40s. But in general this is the developmental doorways that should guide our work with infants, children, youth, and adults, particularly with the most troubled and troubling people.

I'll go into the rest of my talk the next time I visit this blog space -- with more on our visit to this wonderful, varied, and immensely mysterious place, Arizona.
Read more

A Hand-Made Life

Julie Cameron called it "A Hand-Made Life." The artist's way. Where one's own energies, imaginations, hands, and heart can shape a life and a world. On Saturday, June 25, I was privileged to have two artbooks -- paper made from my old T-shirts, designed and letter pressed by hand -- presented at Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural by the artists, Sher Zabaszkiewicz and Matt Cohen. Sher and Matt worked diligently for months on end with seven new poems in a book they called "Seven," and two poems about my wife Trini, and my mother Maria Estela, called "Two Women" (a Spanish version was also done called "Dos Mujeres"). They only did a limited number of the books, hand-bound, hand numbered and signed by me. Several limited edition broadsides of the poems were also created and displayed.

At the presentation, Sher and Matt described the amazing process of creating books from scratch, taught at an Art Book Making class at the University of California, Santa Barbara by Harry Reese (who graciously showed up -- along with members of Sher's family and Matt's family). I was honored they wanted to do my poems in this manner -- the end result was truly emotional, to see these poems so lovingly rendered, just as they were lovingly written.

Using imagery from Aztec codices, and printed using polymer plates and linoleum cuts, they also used my own handwriting for the covers of "Seven," "Two Women" and "Dos Mujeres."

Thank you Sher and Matt. These will remain priceless to me. We will also be selling the books and broadsides at Tia Chucha's and other outlets for those interested in collecting such masterworks of hand-made books. So true to a hand-made life.
Read more

A Red Alert in Chiapas; A Red Alert for Everyone

Recently, I've received tons of emails about the Red Alert in Chiapas, initiated by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). They are apparently moving into a strategic defensive mode, closing down radio stations, community centers, and “good government” operations in various Mayan communities. Many of their leaders have removed themselves to the jungle. The last time such an alert occurred was after the massacre of 45 Mayan villagers, including children, by paramilitary groups, sanctioned by the state and military, in 1995. The recent alert comes after moves by the military in the area, including alleged discovery of marijuana plants that may be a ruse to attack the liberated zones.

I’m not going to second-guess the basis for this alert. Suffice it to say, the world should pay attention and act in face of a possible military intervention. EZLN is not preparing a military offensive. They are trying to safeguard their core organizational structures, even at the risk of losing much ground built up over 11 years among the Maya. Everyone should keep an eye on what’s going on in the area and the Mexican government’s often insidious plans there.

As a Chicano, a revolutionary, and a poet/artist, I too stand in alert – always – to the real dangers facing poor and working class communities in their honest struggle for peace, bread, and justice, even in the United States. To me, the dangers of globalization – capitalism in the age of electronics – is rapidly sweeping away many sovereign communities with a big broom, often bringing death and destruction to hot spots in the Mideast, Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, while removing rights and civil liberties at home.

Markets are becoming the key economic entities, not nations. Borders are being pushed aside. Even in Europe, with the European Union apparatus lording over the diverse national governments, clashes between the old nation-states and the new market state are most evident – the vote against the EU proposed constitution in France and Holland and England scrapping their vote altogether are expressions of this.

Big corporations are reconfiguring what we think of as “government” – including in the United States. Here we’re becoming largely a military machine in the world and a police state at home. Social programming, treatment, jobs, housing, health care, and such are being constantly pushed onto private hands – foundations, charities, churches, and community groups.

Our tax dollars are being used as if they were an ATM machine for defense, prisons, and law enforcement. In 2003, the US Federal Budget included $396 billion to the military, the largest expenditure in the budget. The rest of the budget, including for health care, education, higher education, environment, science & space, housing, international affairs, humanitarian foreign aid, general government, transportation, community development, and veterans benefits, amounted to $367 billion.

The part of the budget dedicated to death is greater than the total sum of all the expenditures that have to do with life.

The Red Alert I’m talking considering in this country is not about terrorism – which is a reality in our world. It’s more about our part in making this terrorism possible, and this government’s response in supposedly dealing with it. We make the disease, we also make the cure. Both will probably kill us.
Read more

Unwanted Lives, Unwanted Stories

The “Music of the Mill” book tour proved to be a success – within the realities of tight book sales and the difficulties of garnering media and public attention in light of the thousands of books that fill bookshelves every year. The most vital aspect of the tour was the audiences who came to my readings – highly aware, astute and wonderfully argumentative. The readings became town hall meetings, engaged conversations about industry, destiny, power, powerlessness, scarcity, abundance, and the process and direction of social change. While a novel doesn’t seem to be a likely catalyst for such dialogue, Music of the Mill is not your average run-of-the-mill (no pun intended) novel. My next bookstore event is at Vroman's on Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena on June 5 at 4 PM.

The shift from mechanical industry to digital/electronic technology over the past 30 years has been momentous on a global and historical scale. Through the prism of three generations of a Mexicano/Chicano family in Los Angeles, these shifts find their dramatic pulse in the novel. I thank everyone who took the time to participate with their own stories, their own wisdoms, their ideas.

I barely got a day to breath at home after my two weeks on the road – and after an amazing assembly with hundreds of students at Venice High School – when I hopped on a plane to Washington DC to spend a couple of days with several middle-school students at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, VA, part of the “Story Circle Project” run by Leila Gordon and the Reston Community Center. I spent three hours each day watching and helping the immigrant youth transform their remarkable stories of passage, discrimination, sorrow, and triumph into stage readings and tableaus for a June 5 community presentation. The youth came from Egypt, Peru, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, China (adopted by an American family), Bolivia (she was also half-Polish), Lebanon, and from Sierra Leone/Africa.

These young people were endearing and brave. I became in awe of their spirit, their energy, their commitment. I wish them the best in this and any other performances/work they attempt to do. They are the world story of today.

The day after my return home, I then drove with Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural’s Coordinator, Mike Centeno, a young film maker and youth organizer, to the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation’s “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community” conference in the Malibu Hills. Co-sponsored by Homeboy Industries, Shade Tree Mentoring, Chicago’s Youth Struggling for Survival, Youth Opportunity Movement, Youth Mentoring Connection, and Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural, among others, we started with almost three days of work with youth mentors and leaders from around the country that utilized poetry, story, song, drumming, and intense talk to open up the heart and move the imagination to the possibilities of youth work based on language, story, and voice.

Then youth from Watts, Boyle Heights/East LA, South Central LA, San Fernando Valley, Chicago, Seattle, Pomona, San Francisco Bay Area, Culver City, Sudan, and other areas came for another three days of stories and poetic expression, culminating in a “Voices of Youth Celebration” at Mount Saint Mary’s College in LA. It was difficult to get the youth to slow down, pay attention, write and tell their most compelling, even if dark, stories, which would then be read to a community audience made up of their mentors, teachers, friends, and parents.

But we persisted, and the youth came through.

Michael Meade, Orland Bishop, and myself facilitated the work with little time or detailed organization. But in the end, the young people – ages 11 to 31 – came together like they always seem to do. The Community Celebration at Mount Saint Mary’s College brought close to 200 people. In the presentation, we incorporated break dancing and capoeira (thanks to Tanee, Check-It, and Chris of Youth Struggling for Survival), a Sudanese welcoming song (thanks to Santino Moses), spoken word (with Jacinda of Chicago’s Kuumba Lynx and Cristina of Pomona), music (drumming by Etai and Michael, saxophone by Jakob, and guitar with my son, Ruben), and welcoming words by Michael, Orland, and myself. The 50-plus youth rounded out the event with their most amazing words – many written just a day or two before they read.

It was a great time for all – but moreover, a time to see our young people anew, although troubled, uncertain, raging, and hurting, yet with beauty, ideas, skills, dreams, and intense truths. I was honored to be part of this crucial and necessary work. In the coming weeks, I have more schools and classes to visit. This celebration will carry me through these and more. The students' lives are largely unsung, unwanted, and pushed aside – as are their stories. But here’s the kicker – they are the keys to direction, meaning and purpose for all of us.
Read more

Moving On with "Music of the Mill"

On May 16, I ended my seven-city promotional tour for “Music of the Mill” in San Francisco (although Pasadena’s Vroman Books will have me on June 5). I had a fantastic hour-long interview on KLAW. Then at Borders Books on Mission Bay (across from the SBC Park/Giants Staduim), some 30 people showed – including a few friends and many who came because of the radio shows I’d done in the Bay Area. Again, the discussion around industry, the economic shifts in technology, the closing of major plants and mills, and the impact this has had on our communities and our futures was deep and lively.

I will, of course, continue to promote this book in my on-going talks, readings and events for a long time to come (I’m gone from 80 to 100 days a year). It’s an important book that I hope will have a long shelf life.

The next day – as many already know – the city of Los Angeles elected a Chicano mayor – Antonio Villaragoisa – with close to 60 percent of the vote. This is historical but also challenging for Antonio as well as the whole city. Los Angeles must look toward the future, its elegantly mixed populace, and imaginative and inclusive ways to cooperate, share, learn, and act in the interests of all the people in an unprecedented world city.

I hope to work with Antonio on major key issues – most notably in the arts (LA can lead the nation as a pristine example of what an arts agenda can do to transform blight to beauty and deep divisions to unifying creative endeavors), but also around gangs and violence. There are amazing peace and healing efforts throughout the city that have been minimized, without proper funding, and often pushed aside. Most of the money around gangs and violence is in law enforcement and prisons. While there’s a place for police in any workable package for community peace, much more has to be done on the front end of the problem – with schools, healthcare, decent recreation, creative options, and meaningful work.

One man can’t do this alone. One man’s leadership, however, can galvanize the energy, vision, and social forces already in place to transform and transcend the deep and ongoing problems plaguing the country’s second largest city.

Tonight, Tia Chucha’s hosts a special reading of Frank Del Olmo’s book “Commentaries on his Time.” Frank past away last year – far too soon. He was an LA Times reporter and editorial board member and one who would go out of his way to help others in his field. I was one of those, many years ago, struggling as a young journalist. People like Del Olmo, Frank Sotomayor, and others would make sure the doors they helped open in U.S. journalism would stay open long enough to bring in new talent and ideas. Frank Del Olmo was always open to me on ideas. Once in the early 1980s, when I brought activists from Juchitan, Oaxaca who had taken over city halls and farmlands with Zapoteca Indian villagers, he set up a special editorial board meeting to hear from them and share knowledge of the growing Mexican indigenous movement for land, dignity, and life. I thank Frank Del Olmo’s wife, Magdalena, and the LA Times for making this event possible. Please come to Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural at 7:30 PM. Frank Del Olmo is someone who must not be forgotten. This book is a great way for his example to be taught to as many as possible – particularly young people looking to grab a thread of life they can follow.
Read more