Saturday, October 30, 2010

November 2nd Won't Come Soon Enough For Me

Election day is three days away and I am really looking forward to it, not because I’m eager to cast my vote as a responsible member of a democratic society, but because I want to GET IT OVER WITH. This has been the sleaziest, longest, most obnoxious and painful election cycle I have ever seen. The only thing on the ballot that makes any sense to me here in California is Prop 19 (which will make it easier to legalize marijuana), and I don’t even smoke pot!

I started paying better attention to politics when Bill Clinton became president. For the first time in my life, I felt like our president was my president, for he was a regular guy, born of regular people, from a regular place. Prior to that, I had always seen our elected officials as privileged people, separate from me, who couldn’t be trusted. I became much more interested in what happened in Washington. Bill Clinton made me feel like the common man would finally be taken care of, because he was a common man. I was genuinely shocked by how much his enemies HATED him, and how much time and money was wasted on trying to destroy him, by going after him for such ridiculous, personal things. That confirmed for me what I had already believed about politics - that it wasn’t about representing the people’s best interests, or about governing at all. It was all about power, money and greed. There really is no place for the common man in politics, except on election day, after we are forced to have to endure months of sleazy TV and radio ads, full mailboxes of fliers printed on tons of wasted paper, carrying unread political messages and attacks, wasted space on our answering machines of ridiculous automated messages, over exposure on the news, conflicting polls, and long winded talking heads and political pundits who, like the candidates, never seem to shut up.

After I became a mother, I started paying much closer attention to politics, at the national, state and local levels. I did it for my kids. I decided to no longer keep myself in the dark out of disgust, but to get involved, because I wanted a better world for my kids. By paying better attention, however, I had to open myself up to the ridiculous claims and promises made by candidates. They all say the same thing, every two years, and then never make good on their promises, once elected. It never changes. Everybody claims to care about education and children. This really angers me, because if they all cared as much as they said they did, we wouldn’t keep hearing the same thing every two years, for they’d be making different promises. It’s insulting to me as a voter, because I’m not as stupid as they think I am. That’s what the Status Quo counts on – keeping us stupid and afraid, so it can keep functioning as it always has. But when we give in to our apathy, we play into the Status Quo’s strategy to manipulate the masses, proving Bill Maher right: Americans are too stupid to be governed.

The Status Quo counts on intelligent voters to be so disgusted that they won’t even bother voting. The dumber ones, who are much easier to scare and control, always show up. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if public education is a disaster in this country, not because the problems are so insurmountable and complicated, but because that’s the way the Ruling Elite wants it. The masses are much easier to control if they’re uneducated and preoccupied with their own survival. One of the many reasons why I fight so hard for arts education is because the arts teach kids how to think for themselves, question authority, and reach outside of the box for ideas and solutions to problems - traits that are not at all encouraged by institutions that want to maintain a hold over the masses. So is it any wonder, then, that without the arts in schools, mandatory scripted curriculum and standardized tests, and medications like Ridalin, that kids are so much easier to control?

I’ll be voting on November 2. I won’t stay home in disgust. I’ll show up, but it won’t come soon enough for me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

The Women’s Conference started today at the Long Beach Convention Center, and First Lady Maria Shriver lined up the biggest and brightest stars to help her wrap up her final year as host for this annual event for women. As much as I admire and respect Maria, both for her work with this conference and for her efforts to raise awareness for Alzheimer's and other causes, and as much as I admire many of her friends and colleagues who spoke at this conference, I can’t help but think, as I watch the news coverage of the conference, of the many, many amazing nonprofit leaders who I know here personally in Los Angeles who are doing incredible work, without endowments, fortunes, or the political, family and celebrity connections that Maria Shriver has. They are all small miracle workers, and they’re doing amazing things with meager resources, without any help from celebrities, politicians, or millionaires. It’s a tragedy that some of them have had to close their doors because foundations, corporations and individuals aren’t giving to charity now. The recession is hurting all of us, but it’s hurting the most vulnerable amongst us the most of all. The privileged in this country may sympathize, but they will never empathize. They have no idea what it’s like to live so close to the edge. While they’re waiting for their bottom lines to come back up to pre-recession levels so they can start “giving again”, people are going bankrupt, getting sick, or dying. Their bottom line is basic survival.

All Maria has to do is make a few phone calls and she can get hundreds of celebrities to show up to a charity event. And she can actually get the media to come out and cover her charity events, even small ones. No one I know has had that sort of pull with the media, celebrities, or politicians. In fact, most nonprofits can not afford to hire celebrities to endorse their causes, because stars make these appearances for a fee.

Maria Shriver, even though she and her family have done a lot for the common man, have no idea what it’s like to actually be one. She doesn’t send her kids to public schools. She has never been broke or alone. And while she has made many a phone call on behalf of the common man, she, just like the rest of the privileged class, is anything but common.

Two years ago, about a dozen of us commoners, known as the Burning Moms, crashed The Women’s Conference to protest that public education wasn’t on the agenda (but beauty tips and how to improve your love life were). We showed up in our pajamas and slippers (to show how tired us moms were from killing ourselves from fundraising for our kids' schools) with a long banner that read, “Public Education is a Women’s Issue”. The cops kicked us to the curb, literally, and made us leave the front steps of the convention center because it wasn’t a “Free Speech Zone”. We were forced down on to the street, where a local news team was parked. We thought that might be a lucky break for us, but they took no interest in our cause.

The Burning Moms started four years ago when local writer/performer/NPR personality/public school parent Sandra Tsing Loh organized a three day camp out and three hour demonstration at our state capitol in Sacramento to protest the cuts to public education. She got a bunch of us activist moms and their kids together to organize a protest rally. My job was to do arts and crafts activities with the kids, and have them design all of the signs for the demonstration. We had live music, barnyard dancing, street theatre, a kazoo band, and a few speeches. We sold home made brownies for $250 each to show that bake sale prices are going to have to go way up in order for us to cover the cuts to education.

At a private lunch with former Governor Gray Davis, Sandra and I learned that these demonstrations happen every day at the capitol, and legislators have grown immune to them. You have to be very, very creative to get noticed. So we got creative, with street theatre, music and messages from real, live kids. After the rally, we took our kids up to our legislators’ offices to lobby them. Our kids got to tell them how they felt about being short changed by the cuts to education. It was an incredible learning experience for our kids. Did anyone listen? No. Because we couldn’t get any big names to take an interest in us. And we didn’t have any money......or media attention.

So how do you solve a problem like Maria? Are money, connections, family name, Hollywood insiders, knowing powerful people, and being in the political know how the only way to get ahead in this country? Can positive, sustainable, long lasting change be made without it?

Ask a small nonprofit leader.

Monday, October 18, 2010

They Haven’t Heard the Last of Me

I saw “Waiting for Superman” this weekend, directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), a film about the public education crisis in America. I feared learning more horrible truths about the state of public education in our country. But I didn’t. I’ve heard it all before. Is that good or bad? Either way, it’s pathetic.

I know how bad it is because I have made it my business to know. I have been an active public school parent for the past eleven years. I am one of the few parents, at least in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who continually researches issues on public education in our city, and goes above and beyond what should be expected of any parent to try and help make things better, for all kids.

There are about 672,000 kids enrolled in LAUSD. But there are only a handful of us really active parents. Some parents contribute to their child’s school via the PTA (if the school is lucky enough to have one), or by making some sort of financial contribution to their schools’ direct appeal campaigns (which, of course, are conducted by schools in more affluent areas where students have parents who are resourceful and sophisticated enough to not only give to such a campaign, but who can actually organize one. Poorer schools, which make up the majority of LAUSD, do not have direct appeal campaigns or PTAs, which means that schools function with little or no parent support.) Those of us who are actively involved in our children’s schools are in the minority. The rest of the parents in LAUSD are nowhere to be found. They leave everything to the school district, teachers, and the few active parents to do the work for everyone else. I have been calling these parents out for the past couple of years, but nobody really wants to hear it, because criticizing parents isn’t politically correct at this point in time. The media and the general public would prefer to keep pointing the finger at governments, school districts and teachers’ unions (which all deserve it), but they’re leaving uninvolved parents alone. Why is this?

I am glad that the movie got made and I hope everybody sees it. When they do, I hope they keep in mind that there are millions of kids across the country who don’t have parents like the ones in this movie. Many of America’s kids are powerless and invisible because they do not have anybody advocating for them, keeping up with what is going on at their schools, or even helping them with their homework. Their parents or guardians are totally clueless. There are many variables as to why this is, but never the less, no child should have to bear the burden of neglect or lack of interest by the adults who are entrusted to care for them. Remember that for every child featured in this film whose parents have entered their names into charter or magnet lotteries, there are thousands of kids who have parents who are either unaware of such alternatives, overwhelmed by life, or just don’t care. That’s right. I said it. They don’t care. These kids have no one on their side. Many politicians, union leaders, and overpaid administrators claim to care about these kids, but most of them are just using them. They’re exploiting the "at risk population" for their own political agendas. If everybody cared about these kids as much as they said they did, we wouldn’t need Superman.

The most active parents fighting for public education right now do it, not just for their own kids, but for all kids. We’re a small, but mighty pack of annoying small dogs, biting at the heels of the big dogs, trying to keep them a little more honest with our constant barking and nipping. We have an important role to play, for we hold up tiny mirrors that reflect back to the people in power, exposing their hypocrisy, forcing them to stick to the issues, and keeping them from sweeping things under the rug. We can’t fix all of the problems, but we can keep nudging the ones who can. Sadly, though, I have noticed that the yelping, nipping and the circling of the big dogs have all but stopped. Fewer small dogs are out there, responding to the negative news stories that keep showing up in the papers, local TV news shows, or radio stations. Social networking sites that keep us informed on issues are still reporting, but very few are weighing in on many posts, or even initiating any discussions, because they are too weary to respond. They have had it. I have never seen anything like this before.

The little dogs have run out of steam. And worse, they have run out of hope. They are reserving all of their energy and meager personal resources to take care of their own. That’s what I am hearing.

I, too, have laid down my tired, small legs to take a long, well deserved nap. I can’t bark anymore. And my family, just like all families I know, can’t afford to keep spending any more of our own money bailing out our schools. We no longer have any expendable income.

I hope that with this movie, “Waiting for Superman”, people will find the energy to jump back into the public discussion about how to reinvent public education in this country, Not reform it. Not improve it. Just tear it down and build it up again - from scratch.

That means that all of the many crooks, profiteers, do nothing administrators, union leaders, and politicians who are guilty of robbing our children of a quality education should go, for they are the ones that keep the system the way it is. They can not be allowed to keep making obscene amounts of money whether kids learn anything or not. Truth be told, they like the system just the way it is.

There is no silver bullet, no one answer to fix this crisis. No one person, no Superman (not even my hero, Michelle Rhee), can handle this issue alone. Let’s start all over again. As a parent, here’s what I’d like to see happen first to rebuild public education in America:

1. Run it like a business (not your typical, corrupt American big corporation, but a solid, mid sized business where things run efficiently, the employers value their employees, and the employees value their jobs). If everyone in the school district understood (from the custodial workers, office personnel, and teachers to the principal) that they needed to go to work every day with a good, PROFESSIONAL attitude and make a sincere effort to give an honest day’s work for a day’s pay (like the rest of us), and that they could get fired (just like the rest of us) if they don’t. A change in attitude of all school district employees would be a great start to rebuilding the system, because most inept employees that I have encountered over the years have, at best, a defeated attitude about their jobs and the school district, or worse, they’re down right lazy and rude, attitudes that would cost them their jobs in the real world.

2. Unions must finally budge on common sense issues (like bad workers need to go, and good workers need to be rewarded - just like in the real world), before they will earn the public’s respect and trust. Admit that they are workers’ unions and stop claiming to be child advocacy organizations. Quit exploiting our kids and quit protecting bad and dangerous teachers and administrators. To end the culture of mediocrity in public education, the unions have to make the first move.

3. Insist on high expectations from parents. Get them to understand that their children’s education may be “free”, but that every parent has got to make some significant contributions to their schools. We can no longer use the district “happy talk” to make excuses for bad parenting. Immigrants need to be trained on how important and necessary their involvement is. Middle class parents need to be less self involved and more involved in their schools. And the upper class needs to take a greater interest in the rest of us.

I think the root of the problem is greed. Too many people benefit from the system being so dysfunctional. The average American, whether they will admit it or not, is too focused on their own, small worlds and wants. More despicable than this, is that most of the privileged and powerful in America just don’t care about the plight of the many. Even those who appreciate and compensate their housekeepers, nannies and gardeners well, turn a blind eye to where their employees send their children to school. This is immoral. Education should be a moral issue, not a political one.

Americans need to care less about themselves, and more about each other. We need more leaders with guts who lead with a conscience. If all else fails, abolish private schools and force the politicians and wealthy individuals to send their kids to public schools. Superman would definitely show up for them, with bags of silver bullets.

As for me, I have opted to take this tragic and painful time and channel it into something more creative and productive. I’m painting like never before, and I have a writing partner. We’re writing a script about a couple of pissed off moms who take on the Status Quo.

So listen up Status Quo, I may be tired and hoarse, but you haven’t heard the last of me yet.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Live and Let Live

I’m horrified by the news of the four teens who were driven to commit suicide in the past month, all because they were tormented by others for being gay. I’m growing increasingly more intolerant of the word “tolerance” whenever the media covers these stories. “Tolerance” is not the right word.

We need to be tolerant of people we’re stuck with, people we just don’t like. Such individuals as a lousy boss, a stinky, old, big mouth aunt at Thanksgiving, inconsiderate neighbors, clueless parents at school, volunteers who don’t do anything but create more work for everybody else, anybody who is a regular part of our lives, but rubs us the wrong way. We tolerate each other because we have to.

But when we use the word “tolerance” when referring to someone’s sexual orientation, the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, what we’re really saying is that I (the superior person) will tolerate you (the inferior person) because I am clearly the better person.

Let’s try replacing the word “tolerance” with “acceptance” when participating in the national conversation about bullying.

When I teach art to little kids, they hear me say, over and over again:

1: There are no wrongs in art (in their own art, or in the art of their neighbors, so criticism of either one is never allowed). Their art is a part of them, a reflection of them, and cannot be bad or wrong.

2. Artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, and scientists never become famous for doing what everybody else has already done. They become famous because they’re different from everybody else.

In making these my two “rules” for making art in the classroom, I have tried to not only give children permission to be creative without fear, but I have also tried to create a school culture that values all sorts of differences. Children come to understand that not only are we all different from one another in many ways, but if they want to grow up and be a famous person one day (as all little kids do), they will HAVE to be different. My young students trust me because I’m so different, and because they all think I’m famous.

One of the lessons I like to teach is Vincent Van Gogh. I talk about how, when Vincent was young, the kids made fun of him for being different. It really hurt him and he never got over it. He kept that inside of him his whole life and was never happy, because it ate him up inside. I tell them that when a few kids teased him, the rest of the kids would sit in silence, and not stick up for Vincent, even his friends, which hurt him even more. This always leads to a discussion on how we should always stand up for anyone we see who is being picked on. I don’t give too much attention to the bully or the victim in this discussion. I like to focus on the silent bystanders, which most of us are at some point or another. We are participating in the torment of others if we witness it and stand by and do nothing.

We need real arts teachers in our schools (not people who have been taught to teach a lesson or two, but real artists, musicians, writers, and performers). They bring passion and love for what they do to the learning experience. And they send out the message, just by being who they are, and educating kids on the accomplishments of other creative people, that it’s not only OK to be different, but it’s something we should all strive to be. Only the art teacher can pull this off. A classroom teacher who is taught to teach art, music, or any other arts discipline, cannot convey this, because they have a different role to play in their students’ lives (my son’s fourth grade teacher was a former military officer. The values that he passed on to his students from his former career, were immeasurable and significant, but would have conflicted with what he would have been expected to do if he was asked to teach mime, for example). Kids need arts teachers – for what they teach them about the arts, for what they teach them about themselves, and for what they teach them about the world. And some kids, like the four who killed themselves, may literally need their arts classes for sanctuary. Band, art, drama, choir rooms…..they’re not only places where great art is discovered, passed on, or made, but they are literally places where kids can go to get away from that which torments them. Arts teachers are the messengers, and living proof, that being different is the ideal.