Community Building: Cultural Literacy

What is the role of a citizen, and how does a citizen’s behavior shape a community, and then how does a community shape a nation?

I have continued to be curious about the idea of the public library’s role in community building, as it is one of three strategic themes.

Who has a voice in our nation, and are all voices equal? Do some voices have a greater capacity to be heard while other voices are diminished?

If you have a voice and you choose not to speak what are the consequences? By remaining silent, are you ignoring the unwritten obligation and responsibility as a citizen? In today’s modern society, is there even an obligation to act in some capacity?

If you enjoy the rights and privileges of a society, do you have any responsibilities as a citizen? Can you individually decide how much you want to participant in your community, or is there an implicit debt that you owe because of the work of past generations?

All these questions came out of the #Metoo that I was seeing on the Internet. It was a public acknowledgment of harassment and sexual abuse that people had experienced throughout their lives.

What I didn’t see was the reciprocal #Idid. For every #Metoo there is an #Idid and even though the women who had the courage and the vulnerability to share this fact about themselves there, as far as I can tell little reaction from males taking responsibility for their actions.

Statistically it is women who experience the vast majority of this behavior, and I want to also acknowledge that many men have also experienced this type of harassment and sexual abuse. While the rest of this article does focus on the cultural literacy and the history of women’s rights I want to underscore that at its core this is not a gender issue, but a people issue and the violence that we allow to occur towards each other.

You might rightly be critical of this idea and think that I am being naïve and idealistic, you could be right. Is it unreasonable for males to show the same levels of courage and vulnerability as their female counterparts and take personal responsibility for their actions?

I have a note on my desk that reads, “This is like this because that is like that”

I think citizenship and community are somehow connected to culture literacy. Cultural literacy is the understanding of shared terms, ideas and culture history.

I do not have any data to back up this assumption, but it intuitively makes sense to me to take a brief look back in history and try to connect the dots and understand why we as a culture appear to be permissive in allowing violence towards our mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony published the first edition of The Revolution on January 8th 1868. It was a Wednesday and the New York Tribune reported that the temperature in Central Park was about 29 degrees. Milliken and Company sent out an invitation to the attention of all housekeepers that Irish linens were available to purchase.

The first issues of The Revolution had a front page story about Kansas (http://digitalcollections.lclark.edu/exhibits/show/a-guide-to-digital-resources-f/item/9833) and its support of the Woman’s Suffrage movement. A women’s right to vote was approved by the Kansas legislature but needed ratification by the white male electorate, and this is where it was defeated.

Women did not get the vote nationally until the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Before the “Married Woman’s Property Act” of 1870 a women’s property and belongings came under the control of her husband. She could not sell her assets without his consent. The 1870 act allowed wages and investments made by a wife to be retained, and remain independent from her husband.

In 1974 women still had a hard time getting a credit card (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/forty-years-ago-women-had-a-hard-time-getting-credit-cards-180949289/)

She faced a barrage of questions concerning her marital status and her intentions to have children. It is reported that single, divorced or widowed women were often asked to bring a man to co-sign.

Before the 1978 Pregnancy Decimation Act in 1978, a woman could be fired for getting pregnant.

A woman could not run in the Boston Marathon until after 1972.

It was not until the mid-1970’s that the law began to recognize the idea of marital rape. It was not until 1993 that it was against the law across all 50 states.

Cultural literacy is so important in providing context; it shows that as a country we have considered women less than in respect to men. It also shows that we have been permissive in allowing violence and abuse towards women. It is not then surprising this behavior continues. It does surprise me that so many men were shocked and grief stricken as this type of abuse has been reported and documented for years.

While I feel the same way, what I find more surprising is that men have not stood up more strongly for women. Should people with power stand up, organize and take political action for those that have less power? Is it incumbent in democratic society for those with power and status to question the distribution of power in our culture and work to find ways to distribute it more evenly or should they continue to find ways to control and maintain their societal position?

In a recent Campus Sexual Assault Study, they suggested five things a woman could do to prevent sexual assault. For men they suggested educating them on the legal definition and penalties, telling them that they were responsible for their actions and that a person cannot give consent when they are intoxicated.

While the report is fair and accurate I think the view continues to be that women need to stand up for their rights. This is amplified in Jon Krakauer’s book “Missoula” which I would recommend as required reading to any male or female entering college.

How would it look if men stood up for women’s rights? Men still have the power in this country.

The Washington Post reported in January 5th 2015 that the new Congress is 80% white 80% male and 92% Christian.

The Huffington Post reported on August 4th 2015 that 91% of all Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. 5% are women.

How would it look if men realized that there was a tremendous inequity in power distribution in this country and that this inequity has consequences?

Knowing our past, our history and biases we have the background and knowledge that will allow us to begin the conversation about what type of community we want to build. Cultural literacy is one way that the public library can help develop and nurture citizenship and help communities decide and shape their future.