I am just returned from the Opportunity Agenda’s Creative Change Retreat 2012. The three full days we shared were filled with an effective combination of directed exercises, facilitated conversation, and free form socializing. The place was the Sundance Resort, a superlative setting with a worry-free culture of service, comfort, and natural beauty. The experience as a whole was complex, enormously inspiring, and indeed revitalizing. I can superficially summarize by saying the retreat was amazing and I feel very fortunate to have been invited. What the experience meant and what it might lead to requires a long moment of reflection. It is too soon to know.
The retreat was generative, that is for certain. I left thinking about many things, but one simple question stands out.
On the final afternoon, after participants had two days of forming new friendships and becoming acquainted with each other’s histories and thought processes, a program segment was reserved for Open Space Conversations, a time for participants to generate their own topics for small group discussions. People were asked to suggest a topic or question—anybody could do it—and then everybody else was free to group around whichever topic attracted them. Being too curious about what topics others would offer, and just being too slow to think on my feet, I failed to offer one of my own. It only occurred to me after the process had moved on, but I offer it now: where is the global Midwest?
I have been using the descriptive term “global Midwest” here and there, including once or twice at the retreat. Some of my Compass comrades may be using it, as well. But I myself have neither attended to the task of defining what it might mean, nor, perhaps more pointedly, located it. In some larger and indirect way all of the Compass work around the idea and reality of the mrcc is about locating it. Asking others to locate it, or simply posing the question of where it is, opens another pathway for thinking through the problem of place in the neoliberal age.
A radical reorientation stands at the heart of the question. The regionally demarcating term “Midwest” carries with itself a legacy of spatial orientation based on imperialistic Manifest Destiny. My feeling is that the descriptor “global” may productively upset the ways in which neoliberal structures reinforce Manifest Destiny, but only if we who are indigenous and immigrant, straight and queer, precarious and secure, bind our futures to a sense of place that stands in opposition to neoliberal logic. Capital has an answer to my question. What is our answer? Where is our global Midwest?
At the retreat I met Bao Phi, a spoken word artist and organizer of Vietnamese descent living and working in Minneapolis. He put his voice into the mix, exemplifying for me the task of revealing the contradictory "glocality" people live with everywhere, but especially in the Midwest. Dig this, a poem he performed for us at the retreat. Bao had another poem picked but in a last minute decision changed it this one because he had just learned of the verdict in the Private Danny Chen hazing case. The poem is, in Bao's words, "from a body of my work where I explore alternate and untold stories and perspectives from Vietnamese American lives, through fictional persona poems."
Nguyen, John – ROTC, Iraq
Let my father know it is not
for his blood
that I fight this war.
His decision, made in Saigon.
Mine, made at a recruiting table in an L.A. high school
Let him know that his hands, which once cradled guns
in another war,
are not my hands.
Let his friends know the difference,
at least to us,
between a communist and an Iraqi
and understand why he won’t speak about me.
Let my mother know one day where she
does not fear violence an ocean away
where the body and home
are not always in a dance
Let my little hippie sister’s letters to me, telling me it’s not my fault
I was sent to this unjust war, be true,
at least in the eyes of God.
Concerning my little brother
who stabbed a white man in San Jose for calling him a chink
let the judge presiding over his case
know that what my brother did,
he did in the name of war.
Let the last cradle of my tender vessel
not be this godforsaken Humvee.
Let this boredom, this blessed boredom,
easily fill that thin space between my finger
and the trigger.
If bullets should fly, let the air pounding from
my lungs as I run be my song.
Let my affection for the people here, for the children here,
be real, not sweetened by Nestle or Coca-Cola
or plastic toys Made in China.
Let them know I am trying to understand
no matter what I say or do,
it is never enough
because they never asked for this.
Let me not tear apart a people, a country, causing Iraqi food
become the nouvelle cuisine in twenty five years back home,
like they did to my people –
let me not become my father, and my son or daughter, myself,
wandering the wavering borders made by someone else.
Let me ask this and mean it,
Though I’m the one holding the gun.
Let the globe on the desk be mightier than the grenade.
The soldier, who looked at me and snorted, gooks killing ragheads,
that would make a great video game, let him know a hatred
he never asked for and cannot reason with, and let him die with it
choking his sleep, and let it pass
onto his children and haunt his children’s children,
The Eminem wannabe Marine, who when freestyling in the cipher in our barracks squeaked me love you long time, saw me scowl at him, and who the night after left a bullet on my pillowcase with a pair of tiny lips scratched into the casing, let me not be tempted to be first, to beat him to the finish line of the race that he and his kind set up, let me not be tempted to line up the promise in the eye of my M-4 to the back of his bleached blond hair, let me not chain lightning from my finger through the hollow echo in the valley of the chamber through to the domed pellet of steel that would become his whistling reaper, let me not be the first, of he and I
to play God. Let me not pull the trigger on his story. But let everyone know
that I could have.
Let me pronounce the last names of the curly-haired Filipina twins in the next platoon correctly, even as they pronounce Nguyen as best they can.
Let every poor brown, black, yellow soul who signed up for college tuition have children who grow up to be NBA stars drafted for millions out of high school.
Let me have the courage to erase the names of the dead
from my cellphone.
Let my lover, in our most private darkness, know, that when I tell her
you have a Quixotic pussy
that your pussy tilts windmills –
let her know, that I mean
that she, the all of her,
has a gravitational pull
and I am only a man
helpless in her current
I am swept in her undertow
and I drown
Let her know, as the Lord is my witness, that I have confessed
to doubting God
but I have never doubted
If we mirror one another then let us be both our homelands –
she, the jagged edge of California, and I her reflection, the jigsaw
coast of Viet Nam, or one, the other,
and let no one say I fought this war to make a better world
for our unborn children.
Let them know, that I mean the first Persian Gulf,
let them know I mean Viet Nam, and Korea,
and the bombs that made blossoms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
let them know I mean every man that will call me gook
every man that will slap my sister behind a closed door
let them know I mean police beating down Cambodian kids
in the park
and people who make fun of my mother using welfare checks
at the supermarket
let them know I mean my father screaming in nightmares
and ghetto neighbors who call my parents gook
when walking by their front yard
Let them know I mean my uncles drinking themselves to death
and aunties losing life savings at blackjack and
white hunters killing Hmong in Wisconsin
and yes, let them know I mean this, here, now, Iraq,
when I say
Fuck this war.