Monday, August 13, 2012

#112 A cautionary tale

Dear all, Here's a mixture! A light poem, a mind-stretching new/old banking idea, and a cautionary tale about trying to do good with blinders on. I wish you open spaces in what is left of the summer, and the possibility of imagining a new thing. Love, Pamela Art work A commuter’s view of the art show on the square: Morning— artists at work erecting booths hauling cases rolling awnings attaching hooks balancing canvasses stooping, reaching, lifting stretching toward the day ahead. Evening— artists at rest sitting chatting reading resting watching for potential buyers of all that work. DARING TO THINK-- A new economy is possible! Save the post office, bring back public banking How could we save the post office, keep rural branches open, and make banking services available to poor folks who now rely on check cashing services and usurious pay-day lenders, all at the same time? The National Association of Letter Carriers has just adopted a resolution to investigate the establishment of a postal banking system. A wild idea? Not so much. The US had a postal banking service up until 1967, and many other countries have been starting up their own in the last ten years. Take New Zealand. Kiwibank was instituted in New Zealand as a postal banking system in 2002, not to save the post office, but to launch a state-owned bank that could compete with the Australian mega-banks. These banks had come to control some 80 percent of New Zealand's retail banking. taking profits abroad and closing less profitable branches. With the advent of Kiwibank, and branches in post offices across the country, suddenly New Zealanders had a choice. In an early version of the "move your money" campaign, 500,000 customers transferred their deposits to public postal banks in Kiwibank's first five years - this in a country of only four million people. Kiwibank had a return on equity of 11.7 percent in the second half of 2011, and consistently earns the nation's highest customer satisfaction ratings. For more information, go to Ellen Brown, “Saving the Post Office”, at Truthout. A cautionary tale He read a feature in the paper about the amazing work of an inspiring woman in a poor country. There was a local connection, and he made contact with the folks who knew this woman and were supporting her work, glad to have found a way to make a contribution. He and his wife started attending their potluck meetings, planning fundraising events, putting their shoulder to this effort to help a struggling little school in a war-torn country half a world away. Then, like a miracle, he discovered a teacher at his old high school who was eager to help in the same part of the same country. She was ready to mobilize students at her school and the schools around her, and before long a growing network of students were eagerly raising money to help war orphans go to school. He and his wife made a visit, and became even more deeply committed to the project. He got excited about raising money for a well, to provide a reliable supply of clean drinking water. An engineer himself, he took keen interest in the design and construction plans, and stayed on top of the progress of this project as well as he could from so far away. Many people were working together now, money was flowing in, enthusiasm was growing. Yet little issues were starting to arise. He chafed at the slowness of the well project, his well project as he had come to think of it. The story of slow bureaucratic process in that country did not seem adequate to explain the delays. Also, he and his high-school teacher friend were not satisfied with how the money they were raising, their money, was being accounted for. There was no question of fraud, but the procedures seemed so lax, the competence so low. Their students were working hard to raise this money—it was only right that the school staff exert themselves to see that good systems were in place so it could be used to the best possible advantage. There was enormous gratitude from the school, but also growing friction. The need of the donors to know and love the orphans they were supporting taxed an overstretched administration and threatened to create divisions within classrooms. The plan to raise money for mentors to further support the orphans, their orphans, became very complicated. The mentors were inclined to report to their sponsors back in the US, rather than to the school that hired them. The temporary space that they were offered, for which the school had other long-range plans, somehow became their space. The meetings back home became mired in conflict. He was increasingly frustrated. Was the goal to effectively raise money for this project and do what it took to make the school run well, or was it to sit back and, in the name of friendship, accept this incompetence? Finally he and his wife and the student network split off, to run their fundraising unhindered, expand their mentoring project, increase their toehold at the school, and build out from there to bring more order to the whole operation. The woman who started it all, however, was finally getting mad. She didn’t want them bringing in their people, taking over space, trying to run more and more parts of the school. Meeting with that original little group of friends, she aired her grievances and came to an unexpected, but liberating, realization. She didn’t need their money. If these were the costs of accepting it, they were too high. The school had managed without them before; it could manage again. How could so much good will have gone so deeply awry? Hopefully there are some lessons to be learned. If you say that you want to help others, watch out that your own needs don’t end up in the driver’s seat. If you start with a cultural power advantage, remember how easy it is to take over—and how disrespectful. Be careful not to try to possess things that aren’t yours. And consider that a very modest intention—to listen well and be a good friend—may end up making the biggest difference. Some things that have made me hopeful recently: The chair of the US Federal Reserve saying that we need an alternative to the GDP for measuring our country's well-being. All the people with minimal garden space who are experimenting with growing potatoes vertically, and generously sharing their experience with each other. A quiet and unassuming Polish educator who is bringing radical teaching ideas to very receptive teachers in neighboring Belarus, as her contribution to the democracy movement in that authoritarian and oppressive state. The dramatic drop in coal as a percentage of energy use in the US--due not only to low prices for natural gas and stricter EPA rules, but to a persistent locally-based citizens' movement that has blocked the construction of over 150 proposed coal-fired power plants, mostly in the conservative south and midwest. ( More resources: Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:, a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world. For earlier columns, go to My favorite magazine: YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, they outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world:


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