Kavita Ramdas on women’s rights and social entrepreneurship

Kavita Ramdas spoke beautifully and eloquently on the topic of women’s rights and social entrepreneurship. I meant to take comprehensive notes, but didn’t. Instead of comprehensive notes, here are some highlights of her talk:

— Kavita likes to broaden the definition of “social entrepreneur.” Typically, a “social entrepreneur” is someone who works in the social sector; that is, a risk-taking innovative social entrepreneur is more concerned with changing and improving culture and society than with making a profit. But she would like to broaden the definition to include social activists. To make her point, she pointed out that an activist like Gandhi was a risk-taking innovator who worked to change broader culture and society.

— She said that in the United States, we have made great progress in women’s rights. Even though we never managed to put the Equal Rights Amendment into the U.S. Constitution, women’s rights are enshrined in law. Compared to her home country, India, the U.S. has made great progress in women’s rights. However, there is another aspect to feminism, and that is allowing persons to have both feminine and masculine characteristics, and in this respect she feels India has done better than the U.S. Continue reading “Kavita Ramdas on women’s rights and social entrepreneurship”

The ceiling gods

Waking up in the middle of the night and talking to the ceiling gods:— This refers to those moments when you come out of sleep filled with thoughts of all the problems you have to face, at least some of which are probably unsolvable. You lie there in bed, your mind turning those problems around, and you can’t get back to sleep for a long time. This is talking to the ceiling gods. (I think I first heard Wynne using this phrase.)

I suspect the ceiling gods are descendants of the old Roman household gods, the Lares. We have tried to replace the old household gods with the altars of personal computers, and portable shrines of tablets and smartphones. But for every problem my laptop solves, it dumps three more problems in my lap via email; I’m not sure our replacements for the Lares are really doing us any favors. The ceiling gods seem more effective. Perhaps I will start pouring them libations, and leaving them small offerings.

A book that changed your life

The monthly memoir writing group at our church follows a standard format: people in the group can read something they have written since the last meeting (usually based on last month’s writing assignment); then I read a passage from a published memoir, and give an assignment based on that example; then the last hour is devoted to writing.

We can’t meet this month. I was going to send out the assignment via email, but it seems to me it’s important to hear the example read out loud. So I made a video of this month’s writing assignment… Video removed — the full text of the video is below:

Welcome to the September online writing group.

Since we can’t meet in person this month, I decided to do a video of this month’s assignment — I was inspired by Mike’s video version of one of the memoirs he wrote. And I’m going to suggest that if you know how to make a video, you might do your own video of yourself reading last month’s assignment, and share it with the rest of us via email.

Now onto this month’s reading….

Frederick Douglass needs little introduction to any American. He was born into slavery, escaped to freedom in the north via the Underground Railroad, and become one of the most compelling speakers against slavery. He wrote three autobiographies, each of which describes his life in slavery and his escape to freedom; the later autobiographies tell something more of his life as a free man.

Douglass taught himself to read when he was twelve years old, and still a slave. He had to learn in secret for his master expressly forbade him to learn how to read, saying it would make him discontented and ruin him as a slave. When he finally did learn how to read, there was one book that changed his life, and set him on the path to becoming one of the most famous and effective abolitionists. Here’s how Douglass describes the book that changed his life:

When I was about thirteen years old, and had succeeded in learning to read, every increase of knowledge, especially respecting the FREE STATES, added something to the almost intolerable burden of the thought — I AM A SLAVE FOR LIFE. To my bondage I saw no end. It was a terrible reality, and I shall never be able to tell how sadly that thought chafed my young spirit.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, about this time in my life, I had made enough money to buy what was then a very popular school book, viz: the Columbian Orator. I bought this addition to my library, of Mr. Knight, on Thames street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and paid him fifty cents for it. I was first led to buy this book, by hearing some little boys say they were going to learn some little pieces out of it for the Exhibition. This volume was, indeed, a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it.

Among much other interesting matter, that which I had perused and re-perused with unflagging satisfaction, was a short dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave is represented as having been recaptured, in a second attempt to run away; and the master opens the dialogue with an upbraiding speech, charging the slave with ingratitude, and demanding to know what he has to say in his own defense. Thus upbraided, and thus called upon to reply, the slave rejoins, that he knows how little anything that he can say will avail, seeing that he is completely in the hands of his owner; and with noble resolution, calmly says, “I submit to my fate.” Touched by the slave’s answer, the master insists upon his further speaking, and recapitulates the many acts of kindness which he has performed toward the slave, and tells him he is permitted to speak for himself. Thus invited to the debate, the quondam slave made a spirited defense of himself, and thereafter the whole argument, for and against slavery, was brought out. The master was vanquished at every turn in the argument; and seeing himself to be thus vanquished, he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity.

It is scarcely necessary to say, that a dialogue, with such an origin, and such an ending — read when the fact of my being a slave was a constant burden of grief — powerfully affected me; and I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance, would find their counterpart in myself.

This, however, was not all the fanaticism which I found in this Columbian Orator. I met there one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth, penetrating even the heart of a slaveholder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue, just referred to; and from the speeches of Sheridan, I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression, and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was, indeed, a noble acquisition. If I ever wavered under the consideration, that the Almighty, in some way, ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for his own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man. The dialogue and the speeches were all redolent of the principles of liberty, and poured floods of light on the nature and character of slavery.

With a book of this kind in my hand, my own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the colored people, for blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff. Nevertheless, the increase of knowledge was attended with bitter, as well as sweet results. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest slavery, and my enslavers. “Slaveholders,” thought I, “are only a band of successful robbers, who left their homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” I loathed them as the meanest and the most wicked of men.

As I read, behold! the very discontent so graphically predicted by Master Hugh, had already come upon me. I was no longer the light-hearted, gleesome boy, full of mirth and play, as when I landed first at Baltimore. Knowledge had come; light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I dwelt; and, behold! there lay the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation. The revelation haunted me, stung me, and made me gloomy and miserable. As I writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid contentment. This knowledge opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me, but it opened no way for my escape. I have often wished myself a beast, or a bird — anything, rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy, beyond my ability to describe. I was too thoughtful to be happy. It was this everlasting thinking which distressed and tormented me; and yet there was no getting rid of the subject of my thoughts. All nature was redolent of it. Once awakened by the silver trump of knowledge, my spirit was roused to eternal wakefulness. Liberty! the inestimable birthright of every man, had, for me, converted every object into an asserter of this great right. It was heard in every sound, and beheld in every object. It was ever present, to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. The more beautiful and charming were the smiles of nature, the more horrible and desolate was my condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, and I heard nothing without hearing it. I do not exaggerate, when I say, that it looked from every star, smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

From My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, Library of America edition of his three autobiographies, pages 225-227.

Of course, this is a particularly dramatic example of how one book can change someone’s life. Your life may be less dramatic than Douglass’s (and if so, you are probably glad of that), but you still probably have had a book change your life in some deep way. Or perhaps it was a poem that stuck in your memory and changed how you saw the world; or a short story, or a speech, or a sermon. Books, poems, stories are all part of a grand conversation that can include our entire culture, and that we can take part in.

Your assignment, then, is to write about words that changed your life. How old were you? How did you find this book? Where were you when you read it? And what was the immediate effect of this book on you?

You know the rest: write two pages, or about 500 up to a thousand words, and bring it to the next class.

Kavita Ramdas to speak at UU Church of Palo Alto

On Tuesday, August 28, Kavita Ramdas will speak on the topic “Women’s Rights and Culture: Social Entrepreneurship,” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA). The talk will begin at 7:00 p.m.

Kavita Ramdas is the Executive Director of the Program on Social Entrepreneurship for the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. She is the former CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women. She is an advocate for human rights, open and civil societies, and a respected advisor and commentator on issues of social entrepreneurship, global development, women’s leadership, education, health, and philanthropy. She spends her professional life shaping a world where gender equality can help ensure human rights and dignity for all. She was was born and raised in India and educated at Delhi University, Mount Holyoke College, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. And she’s been attending UUCPA!

I’ll be at this talk. I’m fascinated by the growth of social entrepreneurship, and I’m committed to women’s rights, so I’m looking forward to learning how these two things can be linked in powerful ways. And did I mention she’s part of UUCPA? Oh yeah, I already did.

Funeral etiquette

Bill “Spaceman” Lee, famed left-handed pitcher who played with the Boston Red Sox for many years, and now 65, was on the mound yesterday pitching for the minor league San Rafael Pacifics. He not only won, he pitched a complete game: 94 pitches, with 69 strikes and a fastball clocked at 70 m.p.h.

Daniel Brown, a sports writer for the San Jose Mercury-News, reported that Lee came to the Bay Area immediately after a trip to Boston. There Lee attended the funeral of Johnny Pesky, who played second base when Lee was with the Sox. This was back in the days when baseball players actually stayed with a team for more than half a season, so they got to know each other, and we got to know them, and they and we were all loyal to the local team.

Anyway, back to Johnny Pesky’s funeral service. I’ll let Daniel Brown tell the story from here:

Lee said that when his cab from Fenway Park pulled up curbside for services, he noticed a New York Yankees fan in the car behind him.

“So I flipped him off,” Lee said.

Wait. At a funeral?

“Johnny would have wanted it that way,” Lee explained.

[Daniel Brown, “‘Spaceman’ touches down in Marin,” San Mateo County Times, p. 1,3.]

So you can add this to your funeral etiquette book: when in Boston attending a funeral of a Red Sox player, can you give the bird to someone wearing Yankees paraphernalia? Heck, yeah. Bill Lee said so.


When Max Planck turned sixty, he was honored by the Physical Society of Berlin. Several scientists gave short talks in his honor, including Emil Gabriel Warburg, Max Von Laue, Arnold Sommerfeld, and Albert Einstein.

Einstein spoke about the motives for engaging in scientific research, “Motive de Forschung.” He said that some people take to science out of a sense of superior intellect, some as a kind of sport, some out of ambition, some for utilitarian purposes. But, said Einstein, some people — including Planck himself — engage in scientific research out of a very different motive:

I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

And there are many people like this in our liberal congregations: finely tempered natures who need to range through pure air and look into eternity.

In the next paragraph of the talk, Einstein went on to explain that this motive for doing scientific research is not simply a negative one of escapism:

With this negative emotion there goes a positive one. Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that best suits him a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience. [Bibliographic information below.]

And again, there are many people in our liberal congregations who engage in religion for the same motive: like the poet and the painter, these are people who do religion the way an artist does art, to help make sense out the world. Among religious liberals, this motive does not impel people to replace science with religion, any more than religious liberals would try to replace painting with poetry. Religion, especially I think for those who are mystics, can be another way to make sense of the world, to look into eternity, to place oneself in the context of the cosmos.

Of course there are other motives for doing religion, just as there are other motives for doing science. Many religious liberals conceive of religion in utilitarian terms: religion is a way to promote justice, religion is way to build social capital, and so on. But there are also the poets and painters and scientists among us, who want to look into eternity and seek to understand our places in the cosmos.


Bibliographic information: Albert Einstein, “Principles of Research,” 1918, address delivered at a celebration of Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday to the Physical Society, Berlin. Published in German in a collection of essays: Emil Gabriel Warburg. Max Von Laue, Arnold Sommerfeld, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck, “Zu Max Plancks Sechzegstem Geburtstag; Ansprachen, Gehalten Am 26. April 1918 in Der Deutschen Physikalischen Gesellschaft” (Karlsruhe; Müller, 1918). Reprinted in: ed. Carl Seelig, Mein Weltbild (1934, 1953). Published in English: ed. Carl Seelig, trans. Sonia Bargman, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Crown Publishers, 1954). The complete text of the English translation of this talk is available online, among other places, here.

Religious education staffer: administrator, educator, theological resource?

Based on a conversation with a friend, here’s a question about religious education and the role of the religious educator in a congregation:

Should that person spend any Sunday morning time teaching?

This is one of those simple questions that produces a long and interesting answer.

Years ago, religious education theorist Maria Harris suggested that the duties of people doing religious education in a congregation can be divided up into three main categories: theological resource, education, and administration (see her The DRE Book [Paulist Press, 1976], pp. 1-12). Harris further implied that full-time religious education professionals might be able to carry out all three duties, but part-time staff might be able to carry out only one or two of these duties, depending on how many hours they work. I have found this a useful framework in planning out the duties of a religious education professional, both as a religious education professional myself, and as someone who has supervised a DRE when I was a parish minister. Continue reading “Religious education staffer: administrator, educator, theological resource?”