Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Olympics: Social Empowerment or Societal Gentrification?

Is it bricks and mortar that resurrect a socially vulnerable neighborhood? Or is it role model and mentoring? And anyway, who defines what is a ‘socially vulnerable neighborhood’?

If we are to define ‘socially vulnerable’ on the basis of the net contribution to society, I find the Hamptons more toxic than Harlem, Chipping Norton more harmful than the East End of London.

But, commentary on the benefits or otherwise of the financial classes to our common economic health, I want to spend a few minutes, on a day when the Brits won a fistful of Olympic medals (wasn’t going to let that slide), wondering aloud about who it is we call ‘poor,’ why, and what really works when it comes to empowerment.

I remember when last I was resident in the UK, I lived in a ramshackle bedsit in Slough – home to the English version of ‘The Office.’ One day, I read a poll in the popular daily tabloid, The Sun.

The poll told me that folks considered themselves poor if they had no bathroom exclusive to themselves (me), no color television (me), no car (me), and didn’t go abroad on vacation at least once a year (me, too).

What the poll did not mention was: not having a door or windows in the kitchen, only holes in the wall (me); drug addicts upstairs (me); and a knife-wielding psychopath in the room across the hall (also me).

What was extraordinary was that the poll was subjective. And that it was all about material possession. By definition, I was poor as a church mouse. But, I didn’t feel poor.

I had a roof over my head. Food in my tummy. Money in my pocket (enough, not a lot). I kept my room clean and warm. I occupied myself with books and writing. And to all intents and purposes, bearing in mind my purpose at the time was research for my book, I felt quite comfortable.

Yet the world increasingly measures a person’s happiness by the accumulation of property. And, if those at disadvantage cannot or will not earn the money to buy, then stealing and the like become the acceptable alternative.

In the run-up to the London Olympics, I read a piece about the Atlanta Olympics which characterized those Olympics as rather sad, being as they had been held in a city rife with racism and violence.

I was in Atlanta from 1992 to early 1996, and was still resident in Northeast Georgia during the Olympic Games, and through to 2002. I do not remember feeling as if I was trapped in a seething cauldron of vice and misdemeanor.

As chance would have it, I then read an article in The New York Times Magazine, which describes the adventures of a snitch called Alex White, who, interestingly enough, grew up a stone’s throw from the site of much of the Atlanta Olympics -

Frankly, I only got as far as the first few paragraphs before I got angry. Look, I grew up in a fancy upper-middle class town, just to the west of London. A stone’s throw, thirty miles and a million dimensions removed from the site of the London Olympics, in the East End.

I know what privilege is. And I know how it can buffer one from any other perspective on life. Partly by happenstance, partly because I went looking, I found out what it was like to live at the other end of the spectrum.

The inner city. The feeling of being trapped. The certainty that one wakes up every day without any hope of denting, let alone controlling, one’s own destiny. Where all are the enemy. The landlord. The electric company. The drug dealer. The police.

But I have known folks who dug their way out. Who got the meanest of jobs. So that they could finance further education. Who went looking for good mentorship. Who had fine teachers. Caring parents. And who were the first  to correct me on my view of victimization.

Who would tear me new ones if I spoke of the bottomless tyranny of history and legacy. Who would truck no talk of ambition, achievement and behavior being the preserve only of those with good environment.

The environment that made the man and the woman was the environment each person created in their head. Bad behavior, they told me, was bad behavior. Don’t be bringing your trashy white condescension (I think they word used may actually have been ‘shit’) into our neighborhoods.

And it was these same lovely women of whom I was thinking (why is it that it is strong women who teach me all my lessons in life?), when I got angry at the NYT article. For the article describes how Alex has always been out of control. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his mother’s fault. It was inevitable. And if anyone was to blame, it was the corrupt police.

Which, in turn, got me thinking about Olympic Legacy. I did a little research and came up with a note about the legacy of the Atlanta Olympics - And then two more describing what folks believed would be the legacy of the London Olympics - and

And all I saw was bricks and mortar. As if the disadvantaged South West of Atlanta has been permanently enriched by the new Centennial Olympic Park and the new dormitories for Georgia Tech, and the East End would experience similar renewal by being right next door to the technical marvel that is the new Velodrome and some enabling joyhouse of materialism called the Westfield Stratford City Mall.

What is required for true mindset change is all the help one can muster to allow those who want to make the most of their lives to do so. And I don’t mean by designing for them what their aspiration should look like. If someone is happy getting a High School education, working in a flower shop and raising a happy family, then that is empowerment of that person – if they are able to achieve it.

The emphasis should be on enabling all the resources necessary to be available in those communities at risk. And resources means more than buildings. And more than money. It means teachers. And mentors. And not just for the children. But for their parents, too.

You can throw any amount of resource at a community, at an individual, but none of it counts for squat if the person and people concerned do not take advantage of it.

I do not know what made an obviously resourceful person like Alex not want to try a different path. I don’t know what his parents (or parent) were or were not doing. What the situation was with his school.

But, as my good lady friends (the ones who didn’t want my ‘shit’) made clear to me, it requires a dose of reality, along with charity, to empower. I do not feel sorry for Alex. Bluntly put, he needs to grow up. I do not feel sorry for people who make themselves victims. I am a recovering alcoholic. I know all about that.

I do not believe that poverty is simply a lack of money. It is also sometimes a lack of resolve. Of dignity. Of respect. And that can be found in the most squalid of material circumstances. Provided we want to get off the pity pot long enough to find it.

Mind you, the folks for whom I have the least time are those who make it out, and never feel the moral obligation to turn back, and offer a helping hand, or a word of advice.

I don’t have any real solutions here. Merely thoughts. A reality check. For myself, if no-one else.

If we convince ourselves that we have left a legacy from these Olympics simply because we inject cash and build a few irrelevant monuments, we are kidding ourselves, and we are letting down those we affect to want to help.

Empowerment comes from a change in mindset – both of those who wish to do the empowering, and those who (like Alec) so assiduously find excuses not to be empowered (sorry if that’s a bit too strong for some) – and then the human resources necessary to encourage empowerment, and to allow it to occur.

And by the way, writing this, I am the same person who campaigns for programs to help folks empower themselves, by alleviating the worst immediate symptoms of poverty -

Now, an interesting anecdote on empowerment. When I was a brash young English Town Councilor, back in 1979, convinced I knew it all, and ready to establish my enduring legacy in one term, I tackled with the issue of gypsies.

Now, I will leave to one side the argument about whether or not they were true gypsies, or merely Irish didicoi’s. They were travelers. They camped in inconvenient locations. They made a mess. And the world and his auntie were convinced they stole everyone’s telly and automobile radio.

The great and glorious in the land had decreed (Caravan Sites Act 1968) that the solution was for every local governmental area to provide static sites, equivalent to the number of ‘gypsies’ in the area at any given time.

Of course, it was a nonsense. Who could know? They were travelers. But all the local worthies willingly entered the fray, because, as soon as you provided the arbitrarily calculated number of gypsy sites, you became ‘Designated.’ Which meant that you were legally entitled to move on any gypsies who were not encamped on the publicly provided sites.

My little local government area was in the process of agreeing the last site, which would have met the Designation quota, when I became Geoff the Town Councilor, at the tender age of 23.

I looked at the plans, and, with good reason mind, opposed the site unequivocally. To the applause of the 1%-ers, whose house values I was nobly rescuing.

Long story short. Kept up resistance for a year. Got some changes. Site got approved anyway. Went down with sinking ship. Much appreciation. Use of eldest daughter (I wish). But onwards to the new dawn of gypsy site in constituency. Designation achieved.

Except the gypsies would not play ball. There were five pitches to the site. But they would insist on parking as many as twenty caravans. It was a mess. They used the portable loo’s as firewood. And the telly’s were disappearing again. It was just not good enough.

What to do? Well, I’m nothing if not a tad unconventional. So, I thought it might be a good idea to go talk to them. My fellow Councilors were in shock. You mean, go down THERE? There are dogs. And filth. You won’t come back alive (um … work out that pretty use of language).

Well, I trundled down in my wellies (which took care of the mud). Barked just as ferociously as the dogs. Which aroused the curiosity of the gypsies. Ok. They WERE Irish.

Why are you here? Well, you happen to be my constituents. Why wouldn’t I want to talk to you? Right. Best come in and have a sherry then. Don’t mind if I do. And then proceeded to have the most extraordinary conversation.

It seems (not surprisingly, when you think about it) that they were all Irish-Catholic. And bred proverbially. Had at least six or seven kids each. And they needed at least three or four caravans to a family (not just the one, determined by some three-pieces in Whitehall).

Plus, they couldn’t promise they wouldn’t steal. Part of the blood, don’t ya know? But they would really like it if they could just be allowed to build (and finance) their own sites, on land they would buy and maintain, in locations that suited them, and not on out-of-the-way tips, like the one they were currently occupying. Oh. And their caravans already had loo’s. So, thanks for the firewood.

Hmm. I contacted a body called the National Gypsy Council (I know, I know, it sounds about as redundant as a pension fund for zombies; but it’s real, honest). They confirmed what my new-found chums had said, and told me that they had been campaigning for private sites, rather than public sites, like for ever.

Bottom line: Parliament had passed an Act, which was nonsense. Because no one bothered to ask the folks involved. Skip some thirty years (and I do not make myself out to be an expert on travelers in the UK today; but this is my impression), and it would appear that the narrative has, indeed, moved from public to private sites.

What is the moral? Talk to folks. Be honest about what is required. But then also, be tough, when that too is required. I told my ‘mates’ that I would pass on their views (that made for an interesting Council meeting, I can tell you). But that I would still set the police on them if I caught whiff of their stealing.

For the most part, the co-called ‘poor’ do not consider themselves to be ‘poor’ in spirit. Sure, they want a helping hand. For certain, they want schools and neighborhoods that are as goods as anyone else’s. But they know the difference between helping hand and hand-out.

And, they are the first to recognize those who play the victim, and need a good kick up the backside. And they are no less likely to take a mile, if given an inch, as any of the so-called 'entrepreneurs' to be found in the City of London and Wall Street. It ain't about breeding and background. It's about trust and verify. Trust everyone, but verify everything.

Empower, don’t nanny. Help, don’t smother. Assist, don’t enslave. Ask, don’t demand. And for the love of all things Velodrome, please stop building monuments to irrelevance. And then calling them ‘revitalizing legacy.’ Whether Millennium Dome or wooden outhouse …

Today, We Are All Londoners

The emotional import of these London Olympics didn’t truly impact me until I saw the Queen sitting in the Stadium during the Opening Ceremony. At that moment, the years fell away. And I saw a young Princess Elizabeth.

Her courageous father defied the pleas of advisers, and stayed in London throughout the Blitz of World War II, while German bombers pounded the East End of London. He stayed, to share the danger with his East Enders. They never forgot. And they loved him for it.

His daughter ascended to the throne less than a decade after the end of that awful War, her father exhausted by his sacrifice. In this year, when Britons the length and breadth of our small but proud isle celebrate 60 years of the Queen’s selfless service as Head of State, a selflessness learned from her father, we see her sitting in a magnificent Stadium, risen from the ashes of that same East End.

I can not believe that she did not feel the symmetry of honor that the moment represented for her, for East Enders and for all Britons, every bit as much as we all felt tremendous pride at the show we put on for the world, in spite of the troubles that beset our land.

It isn’t easy to present to the world a living montage of our past, when, for many visiting, that past reminds them that it was built on our unwelcome conquest of their lands. Nor is it so simple to forget that shenanigans in the financial districts of the host city, in the past few years, once again contributed to devastation in their nations.

Yet all present were gracious and open-hearted in their enjoyment of the international spectacle of togetherness we staged for them, and in which we invited them to engage. My hope now is that the pride we felt and the show of unity that we created can last more than the two weeks of the Olympics.

Great Britain has a unique opportunity to show the world that the Olympics are more than a two-week slogan. That we learn from our mistakes. That we are more than a fading Empire. More than a City of thieving financiers. That we are a nation that stands together when the moment is darkest, that we build together, and can overcome any adversity together.

At a time when our country is hurting from self-inflicted economic wounds, we nevertheless found a way to stage the greatest international show on earth. We can use that experience as a catalyst for dragging our country out of its financial and spiritual woes. And show the rest of the world a way forward for them, too.

As one people, with one voice, united as we have been for the Olympics and for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, we turn on those financiers, who occupy another patch of the East End, within sight of the Olympic Stadium, and say, stop stealing from our citizens. Stop devastating a world that is hurting. Clean up your act. And start now to share the burden of righting the wrongs you wrought.

We turn to our politicians and say, we’re not going to ask the impossible. You are, after all, politicians. But try your hardest to pull together, for the rest of us, at least for a while. And do what you all know needs to be done to set our country back on course. If you must disagree, please do so civilly. But stop the sterile attacks. Forget the polls. Jockey for political advantage another time. Just do the right thing. Now.

We turn on the media and demand that they stop the whining, the hacking and the bribing. If we are worthy of the Olympics, we are worthy of more than tits on Page 3, John Terry on the Back Page and gossip in between. We deserve a press that exposes the callow, highlights success, and provides informed and useful opinion that enriches our nation, not Rupert Murdoch.

I am by experience a cynic. But I am at heart always an optimist. The Opening Ceremony of these London Olympics was nothing if not about heart.

So it is that I truly believe Great Britain will continue to surprise the world. Not just by staging the very best Olympics ever. But by using the symbol of these Olympics, risen from the ashes of the East End, to act as inspiration, as we lift the remainder of our country from its current miseries.

And in so doing, creating an even more enduring legacy for the rest of the world. Demonstrating that the Olympic Spirit, of fortitude and strength, aiming ever high, can be an ongoing venture. Not just for a few, in the sports arena. And not just one that occurs every four years. But, a venture of renewal and growth that works for everyone. Where all share and all succeed.