Katrina Commemoration – Part I: It’s Past Time to Pay Attention

This is the first installment of our Katrina Commemoration Series.

1. Pay Attention

The way I see it, the main reason that people don’t act on things is because they are not paying attention to them. Think about it: the reason I don’t volunteer to mentor young people is because I ignore the need; the reason my woman is frustrated with me is because I am ignoring or not paying attention to her; the reason I don’t vote is because “I don’t pay attention to politics.”

The common thread here is ignorance. People hear or read the word ignorance and react to it like it’s a dirty word or an insult. What it is is a state of mind that presents an opportunity to share and to learn. The issue is not ignorance in and of itself, it is the apathy that is often coupled with it: not wanting or caring to know. It follows then that if we don’t want or care to know, we won’t pay attention.

We should seek to defeat apathy & ignorance at all costs, wherever we see it manifest itself. How can we do this? How can we become more collectively aware? It starts for most people as a reactionary choice, a reaction to something that someone said or did/did not do. In the cases of Katrina and Rita, the [lack of a] response to people’s needs from the government could inspire some to start caring, to start paying attention, to want to take such matters (e.g. responding to a disaster) into their own hands.

There is nothing wrong with this, it’s actually a good thing. However, this cannot be the only way we can be driven to pay attention. To paraphrase an earlier SuperSpade piece, “Successful collective action is not created from hatred, anger, or being “fed up,” or reacting, It is created out of love for and knowledge of self…” What that means is we need to pay attention before something goes down in order for our attitudes and actions to be sustainable. To use closer-to-home example, many of us (myself included) have a pretty reactionary approach to our own health: we don’t watch our diet until we get sick or gain weight, we don’t stretch before exercising until we pull a muscle, etc. In the same way that this has dangerous consequences in our personal health, the reaction-only approach to collective action also has dangerous consequences, the worst being the fact that we can forget what we were reacting to in the first place. Continuing with my analogy, most dieters end up gaining back the weight they [temporarily] lost because after they hit their ‘goal,’ they stop dieting or eating healthily. After a year, many people have literally forgotten about the travesty that ensued following the Gulf Coast hurricanes. The ignorance and apathy that we thought had been eliminated was simply on vacation.

Going forward, how do we avoid this from happening with regard to the hurricanes, or anything else? We can start be doing some homework. Instead of simply looking at what happened, look at how and why what happened happened. This will be effective on two levels. For those who insist in only acting in reaction to something, the more you investigate, the more likely you are to find things that lead you to want to act. On a second, more substantive level, the level of ignorance is lessened to the point of non-existence in the presence of exposure and knowledge. We can start by asking each other questions. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about a situation or a person by asking, “What do you think about X?” If you notice someone is passionate about something, ask them why they care so much. Even the lazy and apathetic talk. We can use this talk for educational purposes instead of using it kill brain cells. Let’s talk about what’s going on in our lives and in this world. Ask people what they are doing, what they are reading (The SuperSpade I hope!), what they are involved in. You may be surprised. Seeing and talking with other people caring about things that you care about is a great way to help you get over the hump and get involved (for my friends that “don’t pay attention to politics” from above, understand that politics is simply action-based conversation, and who hates that?). It can help you identify things that you are passionate about if you are unsure or unclear. Let’s talk with one another. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s share with one another. Let’s educate one another. Let’s uplift one another. Let’s pay attention to one another. That’s how it starts.

Awareness is critical to action. To be active, we must be aware. To be aware, care about our collective experience. To care, we must pay attention.

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora and am a National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I currently live in Washington, DC with my beautiful wife Ellen. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. Today I work at the crossroads of traditional political organizing and online activism. I speak before diverse audiences on empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation though emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet.

8 responses to “Katrina Commemoration – Part I: It’s Past Time to Pay Attention”

  1. Brandon Q. says :

    I believe the tremors have stopped long enough so I could type a comment.

    First, I think that the coupling of ignorance and apathy is so intertwined that we forget that while these ideas are related, they are separate. Excellent observation.

    On a deeper level though, I think that most people hope and pray for a sustained sense of activism and charity in the wake of a disaster. I think this is the wrong way to go about the situation. Instead of praying for your OWN state of mind, DO SOMETHING that will no alleviate the need for your questions in the first place. Just thinking about something doesn’t do anything but help you feel that you have empathy. Not that empathy is wrong, but be honest and ask, “Am I more concerned about me or making a difference in someone else’s life?”

    Switching gears, I think we need to rethink how we have conversations. Don’t you get tired of the how are yous, how’s the family, my job is this, my school is that fluff talk? I am reminded of “My Umi Says” post where I challenged readers to dig when people say they are spiritual, rather than religious.

    And when we ask people what they think and why they think that way, the quality of our relationships will be that much more meaningful. My belief is that one of the reasons people are so caught up in running off at the mouth, it is because they are either afraid or resist being in a position of receiving.

    Whenever I talk to people who are friends or strangers, it is amazing what you can learn when you are willing. It is not too hard to pay attention but it requires a sense of purpose about what you do and why you do it.

    It is funny how many of us think that we are here on this earth for a mission/purpose, but don’t take time to pay attention to anything that would help us realize and fulfill that purpose.

  2. Garlin II says :

    B,

    I think what you touch on is important here. Part of this whole paying attention thing that I did not call out explicitly, but that is equally important, is asking yourself the question: why? Sure, there is on some level a selfish reason for everything we do. However, if [my/] your motivations for doing/saying/thinking something are strictly selfish, [I/]you need to think a little harder about what’s important and about what reality is. Are you really the only person in the world? Are you really the only person effected by the things you do? whether you understand it or not the fact is you are not, therefore you are not the only stakeholder in the actions you take or the decisions you make.

    And as for changing conversations, I have a homework assignment for everyone the next time they are confronted with a typical ‘small talk’ situation. Instead of asking about the weather, the Tigers, or The Emmys, ask this question to the person you’re speaking with:

    What are you passionate about?

    I know. It sounds weird, awkward to say to your self, and terffifying to say to a stranger. Being on the receiving end can be even more strange. I challenge to step out of your comfort zone and connect with people on something that they actually care about. When/If they ask you the question, you can then feel good and comfortable with the small talk because the subject is your personal passion.

    Give it a shot, and see how refreshing and liberating it feels. Then take that same feeling and work on your passion. Then take the feeling a step further and use your passion to benefit us all.

  3. Steven "The Governor" says :

    Garlin,

    I recently read somewhere that a key measure of human development and maturity is the ability to pay attention for a sustain period of time. By paying attention it allows for the human function of remembering, learning and making connections. With that said, everyone pays attention, but the question to me is, what are you paying attention to? Are you diverting your attention to things, relationships and actions that tend to life or death? These days, people spend more time with their head in the clouds than with their feet planted on the ground. There is value if we look close enough.

    With that said, why does activism fade? Why does it have to be that if you strike the shepherd, the sheep will scatter? As I wrote in a past post, I think that it is because we need to rethink our concept of activism/revolution. A movement is a lifestyle, a spirit. It is a leader, marches, or protests. Just like the church is more than a building. Therefore, any of us who profess to be leaders or future leaders of the people should be imminently concerned with impressing this idea upon the minds of those we seek to influence. It must become second nature. Therefore, when the leader is gone, the people will know how to lead themselves.

    How can I incorporate activism into my daily life? To paraphrase Mos Def on “Black on Both Sides”, the world will not get better until the people get better; as people tend to replicate their reality. If they do not pay attention, it is probably because thay have been ignored and marginalized. We must show them something better and that it is possible to attain.

    As far as Katrina is concerned, we must never forget the lessons the hurricane taught us. There is still great disparity in this nation and unequal access to resources and Katrina showed us that. We must take care of each other. Start by placing your gifts at the services of others. Give time, not only money to empower people and discover their gifts. In whatever way you feel led to make a difference, do that. But we can all start by paying attention.

    Once we know better, we have no choice but to do better.

    It is ignorant to not know something, but to not want to know is evil.

  4. Garlin II says :

    Steve,

    You make excellent points.

    The underlying message of the last few things we’ve written has been the question of priorities: why do you do the things you do? I agree with the need to take stock of what we do to ask if it leads to life or death. I also think we need to look at things to evaluate whether they are in line with our purpose as well.

    I think your question and answer about why activism fades uncovers what I think is a fundamental flaw in our modern day approach to leadership. The problem is that we have turned leadership into a selfish act instead of an act of servant. A leader, in my view, means to serve a constituency. A manager’s number one job is to meet the needs of those that report to them. A clergy leader’s number one job is to serve the spiritual needs of their congregation. A husband who is the head of his household’s number one job is to be a servant to his family. We need to get back to this view of leadership in order to begin to foster great leaders again.

  5. Ellen says :

    Garlin,
    In regards to your first Katrina post, I’d like to make a few comments. You write at length about the reactionary response to Katrina. And to a great extent, the damage of hurricane Katrina could have been prevented. Having said that, and agreeing with your call for people pay attention in order to prevent rather than ignore and then respond, here are a few points to complicate the situation. First, I think it is important to step back and look at the nature of disaster [disaster being defined broadly and encompassing both those that are chronic and otherwise] response domestically [defined as within the United States] and internationally and the role of the media. The media, whether it be the television, the radio, the newspaper, magazines, billboards, etc is the primary source of news for most people. The media’s continuous coverage (or lack of coverage) on events domestically and globally are directly correlated with people’s responses and level of attention. The media decides how people are portrayed and to a large extent determines the response or attention a particular situation gets. Using your example of Katrina, the difference in how the media portrayed whites v. blacks had a significant effect on people’s ability to empathize with the victims. Naturally, there would be differentiated response to Katrina victims as no one wants to help a “thief” or a “looter”.

    You state “the [lack of a] response to people’s needs from the government could inspire some to start caring, to start paying attention, to want to take such matters (e.g. responding to a disaster) into their own hands.”, and I agree. However, the reality of the situation is since Katrina we have been tossed from one disaster to the next. Just as soon as one starts to gain attention, something else happens in this world to draw our attention away and towards to the next “urgent” disaster. How can we “pay attention” to 100 things at one time? As a teacher, I know how difficult it is to get people to focus on one particular thing, yet alone the array of crisis’s presented by the media. It seems that our problem seems to be more with follow through (or consistency) rather than a lack of attention. Personal accountability and responsibility should come into play but the truth of the matter is very few people take and sort of personal responsibility or accountability in their own lives, yet alone someone else’s. Perhaps an approach that encompasses both a call for more personal responsibility and accountablity coupled with a demand for our media to highlight the needs and areas for improvement globally and domestically would be best.

    Later in your post you said “Successful collective action is not created from hatred, anger, or being “fed up,” or reacting, It is created out of love for and knowledge of self…” What that means is we need to pay attention before something goes down in order for our attitudes and actions to be sustainable.” Agreed. However, once again, I would like to take this a step further and add that is seems to simplistic to merely say “pay attention”. Pay attention to what? One’s self? Paying attention to one’s self isn’t enough because for the majority of the power pushers in this world (power being loosely defined within the realm of money and politics) paying attention, or knowing and loving one’s self, will present no problem. (I’m not saying those in positions of power are the only ones who can bring about change, but the reality is if one only examines oneself, knows oneself, and loves oneself, the bigger picture still wont be seen. This would lead us to examine who holds power and what is power but I digress. [perhaps a topic for another post? :-)] ) It seems a lack of humanity is more of the problem than anything else. Humane people love, know, and pay attention not only to themselves but to others. And they go a step further and actively seek equity and equality for all. Across the board there seems to be a lack of humanity. The media seems to have none. Victims of disaster aren’t people- they are a story. People dont seem to have a great deal of humanity any more either. People pay more attention to themselves than ever before. Everything seems to be about “me”. How does this impact me? Effect me? Involve me? What do I gain? Only when people step outside of their own bubbles and learn to love, know, and respect others- to be humane- can we really progress.

  6. Garlin II says :

    Ellen,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and contribute to this discussion.

    To your points in the first paragraph concerning the media and its role in disaster (as defined by you) response. I agree that the role of the ‘media’ (I assume you are talking about corporate-controlled, mainstream media) is important in framing peoples opinions because it is their source of information. I agree that there exist inherent problems, low levels of accountability, and nearly non-existent fact checking at these ‘media’ outlets, especially when it comees to reporting on things that disporportionately effect impoverished and/or non-white peoples. However, in order to actually realize that there is a media bias, one has to be willing to question what it is that they hear/see/read from the ‘media,’ as oppposed to taking it at face value. In order to come to this realization, I say that people must pay attention. Maybe after that people will realize that there is wool being pulled over their eyes & ears, and they will start to look at non-traditional information sources to get their facts? Maybe they will become active in trying to change corporate ‘media’ for the better? Maybe they’ll go and see things for themselves? These are three possible ways to move beyond a point where the ‘media’ dictates peoples’ responses to things to a point where people own their own responses.

    You make an excellent point that perhaps the problem is less paying attention than it is being consistently committed to action. This is in part, as you state, due to the fickle nature of our ‘media.’ I am of the belief that a lot of bullsh!t is cooked up (e.g. John Mark Karr) for that purpose to divert our attention away from more substantive things (e.g. Dealing with Racial Profiling). I think that as we become less apathetic, less ignorant, and more aware, we will be better able to see through such ‘media’ madness. I’d argue that if we consumed ‘media’ while thinking more critically, payed attention to ourselves and took stock of the things that really effected us and were important to us, and in turn made the demand you ask for (the ‘media’ “to highlight the needs and areas for improvement globally and domestically would be best.”), we can mitigate the problem of paying attention to 100 things at once.

    Continuing, I understand that there are many people apply the ideas of personal accountability and responsibility in their lives or other’s lives. However, I reject the notion that that is the way it has to be for all eternity. I acknowledge that it’s a problem now (elsewise, I wouldn’t think or write stuff like this), and I am seeking to offer a path to what I think is a better existence in which people are responsible and accountible to others and themselves.

    In your last paragraph, you ask what people should pay attention to. I think that people need to pay attention to themselves AND the bigger picture. You are right that today we exist in the “me, me, me,” hedonistic paradise that thrives on selfishness and greed. I don’t think that paying attention to one’s self is enough, and allow me to be completely clear: it is only part of the solution. If a person stops there and does not proceed to think about things outside of themself, then that is ignorant in and of itself. Do not confuse the simplicity of the phrase “pay attention” with an oversimplification of the act, what it takes, or what it means. As I have stated, it is bigger than observing yourself. It also involves observing the world at large and where you fit into it. To me, that is the stepping stone to understanding your purpose and position.

    Finally, AMEN to your call for humanity.

    Thank you again. I think that me and the other readers benefit greatly from this discussion.

  7. Ellen says :

    Garlin-

    What if people pay attention and simply see the message that the media portrays? Again, I argue paying attention isn’t enough. Paying attention only portrays the exterior of any situation. Rather than merely pay attention, people must learn to be inquisitive. As a teacher, I find two of the best skills I can teach my students is the art of questioning and critical thinking. To me, they go hand in hand. “Why?” and “Why not?” are two of the most powerful questions one can learn. You seem to make reference to this notion at the end of you comment. Perhaps a more explicit layout of what it means to pay attention and how one goes about it is in order. After all, providing people with the tools, resources, and skills to achieve a goal is fundamental to success.

  8. Garlin II says :

    Ellen, thank you again.

    I agree that perhaps I was a bit unclear by what paying attention means. With that said, allow me to elaborate on a few statements from my previous comment:

    “Do not confuse the simplicity of the phrase “pay attention” with an oversimplification of the act, what it takes, or what it means.”

    Perhaps in my attempt to pick something easily ‘rememberable’ (is that a word?), I may have sacrificed clarity. When I say pay attention, I mean the following:

    Observe the exterior the situation
    This is the first, easiest, most self-explanatory step. If your eyes are not open, then you can’t see!

    Think about what you observe
    This is where asking the important questions of why, why not, and how come in. These questions are asked in 2 contexts:

    1. why/why not/how did whatever you’re observing take place?
    2. why/why not/how does whatever you’re observing effect you and/or who/what you care about?

    I’m arguing that both of these sets of answers are important. I’m also arguing that without addressing both sets of questions, no meaningful or sustainable action will take place. The implication is that ‘thinking critically’ is essential to being effective in any sort of action.

    Communicate what you observe and your thoughts/feelings/reactions to it
    This is important and provides the opportunity for us to pay attention to one another.

    I think that as we become less apathetic, less ignorant, and more aware, we will be better able to see through such ‘media’ madness. I’d argue that if we consumed ‘media’ while thinking more critically, payed attention to ourselves and took stock of the things that really effected us and were important to us, and in turn made the demand you ask for (the ‘media’ “to highlight the needs and areas for improvement globally and domestically would be best.”), we can mitigate the problem of paying attention to 100 things at once.”

    I included the extended version to give the important parts (in bold) in their original context. I agree that the questions. I chose this because I think the idea that critical thinking can mitigate, solve, or eliminate problems applies to more than just addressing “media distraction overload.” The closer we observe, the more we learn, the better we become.

    Hopefully the toolbox is a little heavier now :-). Thanks again for supporting The SuperSpade Movement.

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