My political awareness was initially shaped through alienation from the culture around me. I grew up in a middle class family in the suburbs of San Francisco. In high school, I became disillusioned with the town I grew up in. I wrote poems and short stories that criticized my fellow Americans as closed-minded, arrogant, and preoccupied with trivialities. The values I would come to champion were in conflict with the values represented around me. It would be some time before I committed to working to change this.
My political awareness was enriched by my study and exploration of other cultures, and experiments in blue collar work. After graduating from college, I was committed to branching out from what I thought of as a sheltered, upper-middle class upbringing. I moved to Oakland, where I worked in kitchens, restaurants, and construction jobs. At work, and in my free time, I interacted with a diversity of ethnic backgrounds. I worked with people from Meso-America and the Middle East; I played guitar in Brazilian samba bands, and hand drum accompaniment for Congalese dance class; and I studied African American roots music and spent time with black neighbors. I speak Spanish and Portuguese, which helped me integrate in some of these communities. My parents, students of Wernar Erhard in the 1970s, taught me his dictate, “If you want to be interesting to others, be interested in them.” Embracing this quality of listening, I practiced being present for the people I met. My college study of Cultural Anthropology also helped prepare me for this work. I concluded from my readings that there is no such thing as one objective Truth; so when being introduced to people with a different cultural value set, leave your judgments at the door. The people I met during this time inspired me with generosity, hospitality, and love that I had felt to be missing in the culture incumbent to my race and class. I felt grateful and privileged to absorb this cultural wealth.
I came to see that my experiments to transform myself into a working class guy would have a small impact on the structural issues at the root of poverty and injustice. My friendship with Latin Americans hinted at the challenges faced by immigrants in the U.S., and I read about the way NAFTA and international trade agreements caused poverty in the places they fled. In a college course on the Caribbean, I learned about the predatory lending of the WTO and World Bank, which institutionalized global poverty through a conspiracy by trusted organizations. An essay by Arundhati Roy on the displacement of rural communities in India due to the construction of dams clued me into yet another way communities of dignified people suffer under the veneer of “progress.” This learning provided the background for me to make the connection locally between inner-city challenges I observed and heard about– violence, poverty, poor education, broken families — and mass incarceration and the unhealed legacy of slavery.
In a rapidly gentrifying Oakland, the “mainstream” did not seem to be taking heed of these concerns. What made headlines was the newest restaurant opening. Not the displacement, impoverishment, and incarceration of the inheritors of some of the richest cultures on the planet. I needed to engage these structures directly if I wanted to see them make a change for the positive. I considered that the tool called “Nicolas Bell” might be more useful to working people not by standing in solidarity with them hauling gravel and mixing concrete, but instead by using the tools incumbent to my upbringing to move the levers of power to increase wages and improve living conditions.