Saturday, February 06, 2010
Guest Blog: Agitate, Agitate, Agitate! On Howard Zinn's Legacy, Social Movements and the Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign
When I first heard of Howard Zinn’s death, I was shocked. This was a man we thought would live forever; he had an energy for everything good – an energy for activism that I wanted to believe would never end. As many have expressed upon the news of his death – and I am no exception – he was a father, hero and teacher to me. Professor Zinn taught me to love history – history from the bottom-up – history that honors ordinary people. He honored the everyday heroes of our society, not the status quo elite that we were all taught about in school. Howard wanted us to question the status quo - to question injustice, and to speak out against it, wherever we found it. He taught me that history is about making a difference, about fighting to make it better, and he taught me to believe that I could make a difference – by taking action. Howard Zinn – though I never had the honor of meeting him personally – is someone I have lived with day in and day out for almost four years now, as I have worked to complete my PhD dissertation.
In one of my favorite works by Zinn – from Against Discouragement, he is invited back to give the commencement address at Spellman College in 2005 – a college that fired him in 1963 because of his civil rights movement work, which amounted to “insubordination” according to the college administration at the time. In this piece, Zinn (2005) cautioned against discouragement, and spoke about making a “good life” for the graduates:
My hope is that you will not be content just to be successful in the way that our society measures success; that you will not obey the rules, when the rules are unjust; that you will act out the courage that I know is in you. There are wonderful people, black and white, who are models. I don’t mean African-Americans like Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell, or Clarence Thomas, who have become servants of the rich and powerful. I mean W.E.B. Dubois, and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker and good white folk, too, who defied the establishment to work for peace and justice. (p.4-5)
In the first chapter of my doctoral dissertation (in which my main research question is: How do participants in a social justice movement experience their transition toward increased social action?), I also quote Zinn, as he encourages all of us to speak out against injustice, to care, and to keep on fighting, even in a society that often frowns upon such action. Zinn observes, in an interview with Schivone:
And because there is always a tendency…to conform, not to raise your voices, not to be noticed, not to be conspicuous. It takes some courage to put yourself out there in front and become visible as a dissident - as a “troublemaker.” So there are all sorts of forces operating in favor of conformity, in favor of silence. (Schivone, 2009, p. 54)
In the end, Howard Zinn cared about social movements – and encouraged us to take part in movements of justice as a way of resisting oppression against the status quo. A review of social justice movements suggests a number of ways in which people have become politically active, and have historically resisted such oppression. Indeed, as Zinn notes, in another interview with Schivone:
Despite the tendency of populations to obey authority, we have enough historical instances where people stopped obeying authority, and as a result of stopping their obedience they made changes in society. When workers stopped being obedient to their employers and went out on strike, they were able to succeed. When in the 1880s workers stopped being obedient and went out on strike all over the country, they won the eight-hour day. When in the 1930s in the United States workers stopped being obedient to their employers and engaged in strikes all over the country, including sitting down in the factories and refusing to leave, well, then they broke the cycle – the long cycle – of obedience. They won the rights to trade unions and to changes in their conditions. (Schivone, 2009, p. 17)
Zinn, however controversial to those who still choose to think of American history as that created by “dead white men in wigs”, is careful when he defines history in one of his final books:
I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win. (Zinn, 2007, p. 12)
I am brought back to the message of making a difference, of making a good life for not only my family, and myself but for the world around me. One of the ways I choose to do such work is to be involved in the Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign – a current social justice movement in New Mexico. Established in 1992, the Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign has grown into a broad statewide nonpartisan coalition of community, consumer, labor, faith-based, health professional, human rights and environmental organizations; businesses; farmers and ranchers; and groups advocating for the homeless and the poor. Currently, over 145 organizations are members of the largest coalition in the history of the state of New Mexico. The Campaign’s mission is to establish a system of guaranteed comprehensive and affordable health coverage for all New Mexicans regardless of income, age, health or employment status, or race or gender, which includes preventive care and freedom of choice of provider. Through many years of grassroots organizing, educating, and public input, the Campaign has developed a homegrown proposal to enable New Mexico to establish its own self-insured health plan.
The Plan increasingly has been recognized as a viable solution to New Mexico’s growing health care crisis. It was the first of three models chosen for professional independent analysis by the Governor’s Health Coverage for New Mexicans Committee in 2007 and proved to be the only proposal that would reduce health care expenditures and guarantee coverage. If passed, the Health Security Act would change the role of private insurance to a supplemental one, as Medicare did when it was established. The Campaign believes that continuing to support a complex private health insurance system that has failed to address the New Mexico health care crisis is not a wise investment of limited resources. Recognizing that such a paradigm shift cannot occur without broad-based community support, the Campaign has focused on education and outreach activities that have included local leadership development through the creation and support of Local Organizing Committees in key areas of the state; strengthening and expanding the statewide coalition that supports the Plan; and mobilizing supporters from rural and urban areas to discuss health care reform with local and state policymakers (Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign, 2010).
I have been the Education and Outreach Coordinator of this Campaign for over six years. It has been an honor to be a part of the organizing work and the education that it has taken to build this movement. As the national health reform scene hangs in balance, the good news is that we still plan to re-introduce the New Mexico Health Security Act in the legislative session of 2011. We have work to do until then, and I urge you to join me in continuing to build our movement, and to help pass our bill then!
Reform must begin at the state level first. Indeed, states have always served as laboratories for innovation and social change. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, child labor laws and minimum wage laws were developed in the states first and then became federal law. I believe that states should be allowed to continue that role in health reform, as does our coalition. For me, this Campaign has always represented Howard’s call to keep up the struggle for social justice and social change – to make for ourselves “a good life,” by making a difference in the world.
My doctoral dissertation is titled: Resistance Against Oppression: A Transtheoretical Model of Social Action by Ordinary Citizens. This dissertation is the story of ordinary people, everyday heroes, in the state of New Mexico who fight against the status quo by fighting against the insurance industry. It is the study of our social justice movement in New Mexico. I interviewed 25 participants in the Health Security Campaign movement to learn their stories of resistance against oppression, to understand more about how they stayed in the fight and struggle of our Campaign. The methodology of my research was a phenomenological thematic analysis of interviews with participants. A phenomenological study “describes the meaning of the lived experiences for several individuals about a concept or the phenomenon” (Creswell, 1998, p. 51). I share here a number of themes that emerged from my research, as well as quotes from participants that relate to these themes.
Historical Influences and Prior Activism
Participants spoke at length about past historical influences on their lives. One participant spoke of being inspired by John F. Kennedy:
Yeah, I was inspired by JKF ... he was so charismatic that I got energized; I worked on his Campaign as a volunteer. That’s the first time I got energized in my little group of Mexican Americans. For the first time in the history of the country, we went around organizing the Chicanos. We went to a meeting place and invited two or three families and we would train them. And at the county convention we came within one vote of taking over the Democratic Party system; taking over the control of the party by one swing vote. And again they called us communist. We were “undesirable elements.” The local Daily Press smeared us.
One participant who was not involved in the 1960s-1970s movements recalled how awareness of these past movements helped his entry into the Health Security Campaign:
Some people ask why I am working for things like Health Security or other social justice issues, and I think part of it is out of guilt. There are a lot of problems in the world and I spent most of my life just focused on my work or other interests – and I was thinking recently – when I was in practice, I worked hard at that, but when I had time I would golf or go skiing, or other times I would spend time with the family. I would vote, but I never attended any political things. When I was a resident, part of that time I was in Philadelphia, and I remember commuting to central Philadelphia where I was assigned for a year, and it was a time of ... cities were burning in those times [during the Civil Rights Movement], but I thought I was doing the right thing; I was doing my job, getting ready for a career, so I just never bothered with that, and now I have more time and I feel that I should have been doing things in the past, but like many of us, I just never did. So, I have time to do it, so that’s why I’m doing it.
Moral, Ethical, and Humanitarian Obligations
The discussion of moral, ethical, and humanitarian obligations repeatedly turned to the need for healthcare to be framed as “a right versus a privilege” in the United States of America. As one participant framed it, “This is one of our big civil rights issues at this point in time – it’s the right thing to do.” Others noted that we are all responsible for each other; “an injury to one is an injury to all,” and that “our job is to make it better, right here on earth.” One participant, a citizen from a European country, remarked: “Coming from a country that has socialized medicine, where everybody cares about everybody else, I couldn’t see how caring for people could be political…to me, it’s humanitarian, not a political thing.” And another participant noted: “If you don’t address it, then you agree – silence is agreement, so you have to speak out.” She firmly believes that if one does not take action to make a difference, or to speak out, then one is in agreement with a social injustice, such as the lack of healthcare. Another participant observed, “I don’t think you get into a fight because you think you’ll win, you do it because it’s right.” This sense of moral responsibility moves this participant to continue to fight and to take action. Finally, another participant stressed:
To me it’s a moral issue. You cannot allow the system to prevent you from [action] or demoralize you because you know that the rest of the industrialized world has decent, so much more decent healthcare than we have here, and it’s so much cheaper. And I know that because I’ve lived in third world countries, not only in the industrialized world. And I come back to my own country where I was born and I can’t get healthcare. And even when I have insurance, as I said, I get lousy care. Damaging care.
The Value of Ongoing Relationships within the Campaign
One of the most salient themes to emerge from the data was the importance of relationships and relationship building to this movement. Nineteen out of 25 participants mentioned that relationships within the movement encouraged and inspired them to stay with the fight of the Health Security Campaign, to not give up. As one activist noted:
My allegiance to the Campaign is largely dedicated to my belief that [these] people are doing it with goodwill and enthusiasm and doing it effectively…these are good and noble warriors and there’s a bond between warriors when you’re going through battles because you know that you’re safer with this person by your side or that person by your side. You’re more likely to be victorious than you would be by yourself.
Indeed, participants mentioned how grateful they were for friendships within each of their respective Local Organizing Committees and how they were energized by these friendships, relying for inspiration and support on, as one individual put it, “people I never would have met otherwise, if not for this Campaign.” The importance of personal connection or personalismo in New Mexico was mentioned frequently. Personalismo is the Spanish word for relationship building and the importance of personal connection, which is vital to getting anything done in New Mexico. The word also is defined as “the inclination of Latin people, in general, to relate to and trust persons rather than institutions and to dislike formal, impersonal structures and organizations” (Roll, Millen, & Martinez, 1980, p. 159). As one participant stressed:
It’s developing relationships and then taking advantage of those, not abusing them, but taking advantage of those opportunities to try to sell your point, or a lot of times just to get an audience or get the opportunity to explain something to them…it’s networking, it’s knowing other people that can make things happen for you. [And] sometimes people will encourage you, other people, or we encourage each other – knowing that we’ve got too much invested, knowing that this is the right thing. So we tend to lift each other up a little bit and keep going, and we’re always reminded by someone that struggles are not that easy.
Righteous Anger: Fighting the Good Fight
The theme of a righteous anger against the injustice of the private insurance industry was both recurrent and significant as a contributor toward action in the Campaign. Twenty out of 25 participants mentioned anger at the injustice of this industry. This finding came up throughout my discussions with activists of all ages. Most participants spoke of the need to keep fighting the selfishness of this unjust system. One participant stressed that he “does not feel that it is acceptable for insurance companies to make money off the misery of people.” As one participant observed:
And it will be hard because we are up against an evil bureaucracy. It’s a bureaucracy dedicated to a slow burning genocide of our people. The Nazis, I know you’re Jewish, and I hate to use Nazis as a light referral like that, the Nazis put their undesirables into concentration camps. That’s what they started out with and nobody really complained about that too much, but we don’t keep our undesirables, my people, in concentration camps. They camp outside everywhere, and one of the ways you get rid of them is you weaken them with exposure. They come down with diseases and infections and they die slowly and horribly. Sometimes they’ll go into the emergency room and that’s a quick $10,000 bucks for whatever healthcare corporation is running it. I took a guy to the hospital just this week. He got a cat bite; it got infected. Well, it cost a lot of money.
How the Campaign Changes People
Many participants spoke of how the Campaign has changed them and helped them to become the activist they are. They mentioned that the process of the Campaign is transformative; it opens people’s minds to challenging the status quo and helps to bring people together. One participant noted that a lifelong value of wanting to change the world becomes real in the ongoing journey of the Campaign:
I’ve always wanted to change the world; I still want to change the world. I’m just getting a little more frustrated here and there…I just realized that’s the way to do it – keep going. [When] I realized how old this movement was [it was] a jaw dropping experience for me. Maybe in my own personality there is a kind of giving up, poor me syndrome. So when I saw that you don’t need to be like that – that you can keep fighting, it was like “Oh, yeah – that’s the right kind of thing.” But it was the moment I realized that the Campaign was old and you just kept going and going and going, that was my “aha” moment. If you guys can do it, I can do it.
Another participant sees that the experience of collective action in this movement and previous movements has made a difference in his life by transforming and empowering him. He observed:
Well, I think as you develop individual relationships with people and a real sincerity about who we are and what we’re doing, it just makes you, in a sense, try to be a better person. And you see that through others that as humble as they are or as poor as they are, they have some qualities that you’d like to be able to rub elbows with. I think that’s the beauty of organizing. And at the end of the day when you’re tired and you’re frustrated, and you don’t feel you can do this anymore, some little kid says, “Thank you, Juan”, and that just opens up your heart again. And you get over it, and you try again, and you realize that you have to do something or you’re nobody.
Keeping Hope Alive
Participants also spoke about how they keep hope alive in the Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign despite setbacks and obstacles. One participant noted that optimism is inspired by the persistence and ongoing nature of the Campaign. Others mentioned that the Obama campaign has inspired them and helped them to keep going in this Campaign for health reform. As noted by one participant:
Slavery was finally abolished. Women finally got the right to vote…Obama was finally voted in as president, the first Black American president. I can still remember the first time I heard about the Health Security Act. And I thought it was a new thing, but at that time it was ten years old or something. Yeah, I’ve probably been involved in this for five years now. And I remember thinking to myself, when I realized that it was actually ten years old – “What?” I thought to myself – I was totally flabbergasted because I thought that if you present something to government to be voted in, and it is voted down, [then] you just give up and say, “Okay, it can’t be done.” But the fact that you people, whoever it was from day one, until the day I finally realized what it was – that you just kept going and going and going and never gave up, that is one of the reasons that I also keep going.
Another participant, a retired nurse, used the breath of a patient as a metaphor for the Campaign: “If people are trying [in the Campaign], that’s breathing … and there’s hope.” Another participant stressed that, “Hope comes from seeing other people committed to social justice … that there are other people out there doing the same thing.” Another noted that, “I am an incurable optimist ... I think we are eventually going to get it.”
These words of resistance from my research participants keep me going in the struggle. As heartbroken as I am at the loss of Howard Zinn – I am reminded that Howard’s legacy tells me that I must keep on fighting. This is what Howard would want for me – and from each and every one of us. Indeed, as Howard so eloquently tells us:
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we only see the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, it energizes us to act, and raises at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. (Zinn, 2007, p. 270)
Thank you for everything, Professor Zinn. I will miss your sweet, brilliant, and courageous soul. May we all live so long and contribute such good works to the world. The struggle and the journey continues.
Creswell, J. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign literature (2010). Retrieved January 31, 2010, from http://www.nmhealthsecurity.org.
Roll, S., Millen, L., & Martinez, R. (1980). Common errors in psychotherapy with Chicanos: Extrapolations from research and clinical experience. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 17(2), 158-168.
Schivone, G. (2009, July/August). A joyful insurgency: Resistance education and the celebration of dissent – An interview with Howard Zinn. Z Magazine, 22, 53-55.
Schivone, G. M. (2009, September). The spectrum of disobedience - An interview with Howard Zinn. Z Magazine, 22, 15-17.
Zinn, H. (2007). A power governments cannot suppress. San Francisco: City Light Books.
Zinn, H. (2005, May 15). Against discouragement: Spelman College commencement address, May, 2005. Retrieved January 31, 2010, from http://www.crmvet.org/comm/zinn05.htm
This is a guest blog by Dana Millen. Since 2003, Dana has been the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign. This Campaign is focused on creating a first of its kind universal health care system for all New Mexicans that switches the role of private insurance into a secondary one.
Dana received her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Public Policy and Leadership in December, 2009 from the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. Millen’s dissertation is a groundbreaking study of activists in the New Mexico health reform social justice movement, the Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign.
Contact information for Dana is: 505-856-8359, or firstname.lastname@example.org. To check out the Health Security Campaign website, please visit: www.nmhealthsecurity.org.
Tender and tough in a way that would make Zinn smile. You have done Joe Hill ("Don't mourn for me, organize." one better. You show how you can mourn and organize at the same time, and mourn through organizing.
You made me remember Auden's poem on Freud's death:
"Every day they die among us, those who were doing us some good, who knew it was never enough but hoped to improve a little by living."
Posted by: Samuel Roll | Feb 13, 2010 6:13:23 AM