February 25, 2020
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Focus on community during hard times

For many of us these are difficult times. Many are struggling with joblessness and lack of health care. We may be facing losing our homes or wondering if we can continue to be able to afford the medicine we need and at the same time pay for our housing and food. All of us face an uncertain future with climate change causing more and more natural disasters and growing violence at home and abroad.

In these hard times it is more important than ever that we affirm our connections, support each other and learn what we can do to create a better future for ourselves and the generations to come. Those of us going through difficulties often blame ourselves and feel shame for our troubles. We tend to think we are alone and often make it a self-fulfilling prophecy by not sharing what we are going through. This is understandable given the stigma attached to those in poverty or who have special physical or mental health needs.

The Horatio Alger story (and its ironic adaptation in Slumdog Millionaire) continues to be promoted as a model for all: the outstanding individual who rises from poverty by his own efforts to fame and fortune. Writers like Studs Terkel, Barbara Ehrenreich and Howard Zinn have brought to light the powerful stories of individuals who have survived hard times with dignity by joining together with others in organizations and unions to challenge structures of inequality and oppression. But these are not the stories we see on television or most Hollywood productions.

Recently it has been revealed that the misery of many has been created by the greed of the few people who have enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of us and who therefore have had the resources to influence self-serving policies. Yet there has been little organized protest or discussion of positive alternatives.

How do we find our own voices, honor our own stories and join together with others to work for the values of community, sharing, cooperation and concern for the generations to come? How do we tap the creativity and resourcefulness of so many people who share these values? At a time of dwindling resources, there may be a temptation to withdraw into seeking personal solutions by individuals and by organizations. There is a danger of being pitted against each other as we struggle to survive.

Studs Terkel, the author of “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression,” was interviewed by Alex Kotlowitz for AARP in one of the last interviews he gave before he died at age 96 in October. When asked what lesson he would share for our troubled times today, he said: “The lessons of the Great Depression? Don’t blame yourself. Turn to others. Take part in the community. The big boys are not that bright. Hope dies last — ‘La esperanza muere ultima.’ Without hope, you can’t make it. And so long as we have that hope, we’ll be okay. Once you become active helping others, you feel alive. You don’t feel, ‘It’s my fault.’ You become a different person. And others are changed, too.”

Last December, our community lost an inspiring social activist when Bangor’s Jim Harney, artist in residence for Posibilidad, photojournalist, lecturer and educator who has spent decades working in solidarity with the victims of globalization, particularly in this hemisphere, died at age 67. One evening before the terminal cancer took its toll, he shared his perspective on the global economic crisis and invited others to share their reflections. “We all have our stories and they need to be nourished,” he said. He and others talked about the need to re-imagine stories focused on “we” rather than “I,” on valuing relationships more than money. He asked people to join hands to share their energy and to tap into “the power that lies in the human being next to us.”

In our community we have many individuals and organizations working in a variety of ways to create social change. The l5th annual HOPE Festival will bring together more than 60 organizations working on peace, justice and environmental issues for a day of celebrating our connections to the earth and to each other. Everyone is invited to the free festival 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the University of Maine Student Recreation and Fitness Center in Orono. There will be information sharing, entertainment, workshops, demonstrations and children’s activities. There will be opportunities to contribute to a “Wall of HOPE” by adults and children and there will be talking circles where people can share their stories and listen to those of others. Join us to celebrate, learn and renew hope for a peaceful and sustainable future in our community and in the world.

Ilze Petersons works with the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine.

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