Thursday, January 1, 2009

“Where the Ball is, the Game is”

This is an essay I planned to write a long time ago but the timing actually works well now as we say goodbye to one historic year and look forward to another. Two years ago I wrote an essay about actions individuals can do to foster sustainable change ( This time after a year where “change” was the buzzword, I want to add a philosophical note on how we sustain it.

When trying to think of how best to summarize my ideas, something my son’s basketball coach says came to mind. During practice and games, he would often (in a call-and-response chant) start this little ditty: “Where the ball is” and the kids respond in unison “the game is”. They’d repeat this a few times to get focused and then play ball. That team went undefeated. Maybe there was something to that little ditty.

The premise of the essay was going to be about the debates raging on whether Obama would or would not bring “real” change or would just be “more of the same”, politics as usual. While the question is interesting, it is not the most relevant question…kind of like the sports questions about Dream Team v. Redeem Team and such. It is fun to debate but that’s about it. Even if there is an empirical answer to the question, does it really matter?

In the same vein, the “Obama” question doesn’t really matter because it is the wrong question to focus on if our goal is social justice and a more equitable world. I sometimes think we don’t know where the ball is in the game of life and sustainable change. Who has the ball? World leaders? Multi-national corporations? No, we do. Without our support, there would be no leaders. Without our business, there would be no corporations. Without engaged and active people, we will not have strong and sustainable communities. No masses, no movement.

The question is not what Obama will do, but what will we do? This is the only relevant question worth discussing. I am not arguing that leaders do not matter on some level. We know they do. But they matter only as much as we the people allow them to matter. So if Obama is not really “about change” and he disappoints progressives that would be our failure, not his. Instead of highlighting and debating bad policies and ideology, our time would be much better spent organizing our communities to 1) sustain themselves despite policies and oppressive conditions that negatively affect our material realities and 2) challenge policies we can change through protest and petition.

We must embrace the only power that can challenge the inequities of our world once and for all: people power. The Panthers understood this. While progressive ideology informed their politics, their mission was to serve and politicize their communities, not preach Marx and Mao theoretical teachings to them. Bobby Seale discussed how the Panthers wanted to capture the imagination of the people. Kathleen Cleaver also emphasized that the Panthers were not interested in focusing on what the government was not doing (and addressing valid grievances), but instead the Panthers wanted to empower the people so we can better our own communities. The ten-point platform as described by Bobby Seale in this clip embodies the Panther approach:

Sure it matters if there is a progressive minded president in the White House, but if communities (people) are not ready to sustain progressive change it will NEVER last. This is why I believe self determination (with material determinism as the focus) is the most relevant framework to build sustainable communities.

As I was just reminded when I read an article on today about the Isreal/Palestine conflict: Leaders Lie, Civilians Die, and Lessons of History are Ignored, the top down approach will never work...NEVER. People want change. People have to make change....for themselves...and sustain it for themselves.

And given the material difficulties we all now face, there is no better time to start from the bottom and finally build up a strong and sustainable people-based solution to what ails our world. People always want change, but it is when people need change that we become most invested in making things happen and can make the most difference. People need change now.

Where the ball is (people), the game is (change). The people may not always be on the right side of an intellectual or ideological debate…but they are always on the right side of solutions…for the “people”.

So where are the people right now? They are hurting but hopeful. They are supporting Obama, and according to polls, supporting him overwhelmingly (~80% approval rating). So questioning Obama is basically questioning the many that support him. Instead of debating what Obama will or will not do for us, we need to use the opprtunity to organize those that are now engaged and ready for change. As Alice Walker reminded us in her letter to Obama: We are the ones we have been waiting for.

I don’t mind intellectual debates that challenge us to think critically and question hegemony. That is one reason I am a sociologist. But I am a community advocate first and foremost. I want our communities to be peaceful and prosperous. And in my mind there is no debate on how best to make that happen: we make it happen.

So as I watched the ball fall on 2008, I smiled and thought: I’m glad we have a president that understands basketball. But even if he didn’t, it doesn’t matter because my community does, and they are who we need to get in the game, not the mascot (symbol). There is some evidence that people are getting into the game and becoming more engaged and active (internet activism, youth and the election, union warehouse sit-in strike and success, protests across the globe over Israeli offensive, etc.).

Despite the empirical evidence that things will get worse in 2009, I start this New Year hopeful that people will take care of themselves as we always do when times get roughest…and in these times of strife, in doing so, we may actually turn self-preservation into self-determination. Where the ball is, the game is…it’s time to keep our eye on the ball. In 2009…it’s game time.

Related Articles of Interest:

10 Reasons To Be Hopeful About 2009 -- and 3 Reasons To Be Terrified

By Sarah van Gelder, YES! Magazine. Posted January 2, 2009.

The Great Harlem Debate
Was the Obama Election Good for Black People?

by Davey D

Listen to this Debate on Breakdown FM by clicking the link below

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