Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “citizenship”

The Power of Power

If you have ever had a deeply spiritual moment when you just knew that all you believed in was in fact true…If you have ever looked at someone and known with absolute clarity that they are your soul mate…If you have ever stood in the presence of a great person, and known with total confidence that they are the real thing…

Such feelings rarely happen, but I am told that when they do, they are a moment of total clarity and that this is an awesomely powerful moment.

Last week, I was in Washington DC for work. We were able to sneak in a bit of sightseeing, a couple of monuments, and they were beautiful and poignant, even if I primarily discovered I possess a woeful ignorance of American history.

But when my work schedule had finished, a colleague invited me to meet a friend who works on Capitol Hill. We would get a tour and spend a few minutes chatting with him.

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Now I am no great admirer of this or any American government that I have experienced. But there was something incredibly powerful as we approached the Hill. We received a tour by a young tour guide, who was articulate and proud. He peppered his descriptions with caveats, jokes and stories. But he never strayed from the responsibility and the gravitas that he felt he was representing something sacred.

We were introduced to the new statue of Rosa Parks, which stands near a small room that contains a bathroom, library and I am not sure what else, but it is only for the women representatives. Is there a nearer, more convenient bathroom for women? Of course there is. Women have been leaders here for 97 years. A proper woman’s facility was installed in 2008. 

Then we met my friend’s friend, who works for a senator. He was a real-life West Wing person, only incredibly human. But between the jokes and the explanations, it became abundantly clear that he is deeply excited and honored to be a part of something special. He feels the thrill, every morning when he leaves the train station and sees the capitol building anew. He calls his senator ‘my boss,’ but does so with genuine love and reverence.

I would not consider myself someone impressed by beautiful domes, excited by statues and paintings, and especially not intrigued by men and women (but mostly men) in suits and ties with cell phones wrapped to their ears.

But there was something very powerful in the air: a sense of purpose, a sense of duty and responsibility. I know. I know, we are all so critical of these people and for good reason, but when you stand there under the great dome, in the marble halls, where numerous statues of great men and women stare down at you daring you to take courageous steps, you cannot but feel profoundly inspired.

 

You feel the presence of greatness, past and present, and it gives you hope for the future.

I have lived in the US for eight years, helped in two Presidential campaigns with only a twinge of remorse that I cannot vote. I have cheered my city’s team in the Superbowl and the baseball “world” (really?) championships without really understanding the rules or what we are eating.

I have criticized and campaigned against shameful flaws in this society. I have written novels where, under the guise of fiction, I have vented my anger at certain shameful traits of this society.

I have, I know, also seen beautiful mountains, lakes, forests, and oceans, but somehow they seem an act of God or something spiritual – beyond the realm of man.

But here on the Hill I met something built by the American nation. I experienced the heart of democracy and freedom, and for an hour, I truly felt its very pulse.

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And I want to feel more. My friend turned to me and said: ‘how can you not want to run for office, to be a part of this energy?’ He had felt it too and I told him on the spot that if he ran, I would write his speeches. We laughed, but a small part of me was serious (he would be – actually already is – a very good leader by the way). 

I am now back in California, in the city I love. But I have undergone a transformative change. I will campaign in the next Presidential election as a citizen and I will cast my vote. This month, I will begin the long path to citizenship.

After eight critical years, I no longer want to be an outsider looking in. I want to be a part. Even if that means learning American Football rules for when the ’49ers reach the Superbowl again next year.

I want to feel that heartbeat again, the exhilarating synergy of freedom and democracy. It makes what I write about, in my novels and my blog, all the more relevant. It makes me want to belong.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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A Serious Economic Agenda – Education

This week I began a series of posts about the need to address what is the foundation needed for a 21st Century economy. While other components can have a relatively quick impact, the effects of a competitive and relevant education system is long-term and yet crucial. We can keep on blindly following any of the other areas in the hope that something else occurs – like ceasing to depend upon oil by the time we have exhausted our supplies – but education is an investment that we will not be able to measure so easily or quickly.

If the US wants to remain the world leader, it needs to boast the best education system in the world. Currently, the US ranks 18th among the 36 industrial nations. There are many aspects of the education system that need overhaul, but I want to focus on something very tangible: the status of teachers.

I am proud of the fact that my sons are in public schools. I know we are lucky to live in an area where education is prioritized and a local politician cannot survive without offering more than lip service. Before we moved to the US, my wife and I considered applying to a private school for scholarships because we had heard a lot of negativity regarding the US public education system.

Then two separate parents told me that their children had endured difficult years in their private schools. It all depends on the teacher, one told me, and this resonated for me. Between them, my children have spent 8 years in the public school system, and there is only one teacher that I feel was less than very good, with the majority being excellent. By this I mean that they inspired our children to love science, maths, reading and art. They have helped to imbue a sense of citizenship in our children, who know how to respect and play with children of all colors and religions, as well as those with physical challenges. I see this every day in the variety of friends they hang out with and bring home for play dates.

An inspirational story that happens every day in our classrooms.

Some thoughts on teachers:

1. The Nine Month Year: Teachers don’t just need to know how to teach, they need to show up every day and be inspiring. They need to show patience and compassion at all times in the face of sensitive young souls, who can learn the wrong lesson in one careless exchange with a teacher. For this reason, I do not resent their summer vacation. Following on from this, I do not consider their salary being a reflection of nine months, as they need to pay rent and other bills for 12 months of the year. Neither do I want them flipping burgers during the summer, as one insensitive critic suggested, but recharging their batteries for the next year.

One teacher asked me to add that some of this summer ‘vacation’ is spent learning new methods or updating their curriculum.

2. Salaries: If we are serious about respect for the profession, we need to measure it in terms of financial rewards. Teachers seem to earn between $28K – $70K, the higher end going to those with Masters and Doctoral degrees, or extensive experience. Are we surprised that people would rather screw up in the financial world and receive six or seven-figure bonuses than need to succeed in a classroom? I can’t find an article I was reading that says professional retention among teachers under 35-year-old is now less than five years, but I read it very recently. In other words, even the most idealistic gets burnt out before they acquire much experience in the field.

How are we to finance a serious salary increase across the board without raising taxes? I’m not sure that we can in the short-term. Sure fixing that everyone (including corporations) pays taxes (to be dealt with in the next few posts), whether we can afford three wars simultaneously, and other such ideas would help.

But ignorance is just as expensive. “It has been projected that over the next five years, the state’s budget for locking up people will rise by 9 percent annually, compared with its spending on higher education, which will rise only by 5 percent. By the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $15.4 billion will be spent on incarcerating Californians, as compared with $15.3 billion spent on educating them.” – source.

3. Respect – finally there is the issue of respect. It is inconceivable that politicians and pundits denigrate and insult our teachers as we have seen over the past few months in regard to the labor struggle in Wisconsin. It is not just about lowering their own self-esteem, but what message are we giving the children who are sitting in their classroom? Please take a moment to watch the Daily Show skit below and feel free to swear along

The Daily Show – Recap – Week of 02/28/11

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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