Perspectives on New Culture from the NWNC 2014 Conference

Perspectives on New Culture from the NWNC 2014 Conference

This was a panel presentation from the opening day of the recent conference, 10/18/14.


Watch on YouTube.

After an introduction by Tawana Petty, Kim Sherobbi throws out an opening challenge: we need a culture that’s less greedy and mistrustful.

As the first panel speaker (starting at 3:55), Frithjof Bergmann reflects that “we haven’t had a culture so far… the culture we have created has not make us more alive, and that’s the least a culture can do.” We have sacrificed culture to our economy, “to producing ever more at an ever greater speed.” This is not just looking forward to some utopia, but also, in part, returning to older values, where, for example, cultural celebrations ran (in the mountain village that Frithjof grew up in) for weeks. We need a culture that helps everybody discover something that the deeply and seriously want to do.

Sterling Toles (9:17) (check out his tour of Detroit here) diagnoses the problems with culture as a reflection of our relations with one another, which in turn are problems that we’re having internally. This was a common theme at the conference, reflecting the teachings of Grace Lee Boggs (and in turn MLK and Ghandi): be the change you want to see. We need to believe that love and change are possible.

Judith Snow (14:30) reflects on what culture actually is given global communications. What’s the relation between social roles, money, and individuality? Detroit is home to so many ways of relating to each other that are actually the beginnings of a new culture.

Toles’s approach is echoed by Roberto Mendoza (22:27), who talks about the self-doubt (“internalized oppression”) that plauges minority activists in particular. What kinds of values will underlie this new culture that we’re proposing? We can learn (and have learned, in the case of the ecology movement) from older, native values in contrast to those fostered by capitalism.

Shane Bernardo (32:47) reflects on the immigrant experience of the American Dream (“We never found it! I don’t think it exists!”), and the sense of questioning needed for becoming more human. He calls urban farming “a living metaphor for spiritual endeavor.” While ordinarily in describing New Work, we distinguish between a calling on the one hand (work one really, really wants to do) and community production as the activity that’s supposed to replace some of traditional job work to financially enable one’s calling, it’s important to understand that (fortunately!) the two types of activity may well overlap, that performing activities to support ourselves (whether making our own food, fabricating things we need instead of buying them, developing and maintaining alternative energy sources, etc.) may well be exactly the kind of spiritual tonic that we need to invigorate our lives. For the chronically unemployed (and unemployable) in particular, a New Work project that organizes a group activity to help the community can be the beginning and end of the endeavor: it is enough to engage the group (Frithjof has done this with prisoners, retired people, Native American tribes, displaced workers, and other populations) and determine what they’d really like to do, and help them to do it. That new, shared work, in effect transforms that segment of culture.

Though these were supposed to be merely 5-minute opening statements, they got longer and longer with each speaker, and by the time the whole panel had spoken, there was just time left for some audience questions, and not really any interaction between the participants that I would have liked to see.

At dinner after the last day of the conference, I got to witness some disagreement between Frithjof and Roberto re. the role of values in the approach to New Work. Roberto was of the opinion that it’s vital, right off the bat, to define what the values of our movement is, and he was adamant that this must include, for instance, worker ownership of all New Work enterprises. I saw variations of this attitude voiced by several conference participants, who were very concerned about what tone the dialogue was taking: What values are being reflected, and do these properly approach issues like privilege that are central to many of the liberal activist groups that are already pursuing New Work-type life strategies?

Frithjof’s approach is more pragmatic: New Work needs to be about action, about actually instituting these new strategies. People tend to adjust to the structures in which they live, so rather than changing hearts first, you can change what people are actually doing, and that in turn changes hearts.

Though New Work relies on vision (multiple visions!) of a better, future world, New Work is not itself a single organization: it’s an approach to problems that is inspiring many different movements. While a particular organization effort may well want to have a well-thought-out vision statement, when you’re trying to convince the world that there’s a fundamental dysfunction in our attitudes toward work and the economy, arguing about the details of vision is a sure way to defeat practical efforts to work forward. My recent blog post at The Partially Examined Life develops this thought a bit further.

We are very lucky to have such a diverse group of voices engaging with New Work ideas and engaged in New Work-type projects. Unsurprisingly, many of these projects related to community production, cultural change, and/or ecological awareness were going on long before the term “New Work” entered the picture. New Work provides a framework for coordinating these disparate efforts, for putting them in a broader context, so that it’s not just, for example, urban farming for farming’s sake (or for food’s sake), but as an element of an overall strategy to take control of our economic, and hence cultural, circumstances.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Related Post: Why We Need a New Culture.

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