Linville Gorge Climbing

I’m trying to capture the beauty and joy of a recent climbing trip in words. It was a short one–I drove to Table Rock, NC on Friday night and came home the next night. While driving home I was so overwhelmed with joy that I cried. I’ve lived 39 years. I’ve experienced ups and downs and love and friendship and fatherhood and teaching and transformative learning and none of these beautiful things have ever brought me tears of joy. I laugh at myself because climbing is what did it. As I was crying and laughing I thought about the fact that I was driving in my car alone and couldn’t think of how to share my joy. Song? No. Poem? No. Storytelling? That would have to be my attempt.

Sharing the beauty might be easier. The Linville Gorge is a place that, particularly when it is shrouded in fog, reminds me of Japanese prints–the vertical ones that use a lot of negative space. All you see are the walls rising up on the edges of the greyness with some spindly pines, moss hillocks, and rhododendrons poking into the air. The forms get shrouded and revealed as the sun burns through or the wind whips around the mist. If you zoom in on the rock, the gnarled gneiss can enrapture you, and I can only imagine what it might be like to examine it with psilocybin. Even without, while belaying I stare and stare. Undulating waves and swirls of black speckles and white crystals in grey, holds so big and sharp you could guide your granny up some of the routes. The rock is covered with lichens: papery and black, sea-green and foamy. Water streaks are complimented by obvious streaks where the climbs are, each offering openings amid the lichen and moss. This time I got to see a Carolina preying mantis, my son’s favorite insect. It’s smaller than your typical bright green mantis and blends in with the black, grey, and white of the rock. It navigates the extensive tufts and lumps of lichen. And in the fall when you look down, it’s like fruity pebbles with the leaves turning.

My joy comes with history. This marks the tenth year for me climbing there, and as I was driving and crying memories of all those trips were evoked and I relived them. I compressed time and it sent me into tearful reverie. Linville, like a second home. Refuge from overhanging sandstone sport climbing and family strife; reunion place for friends and family from Colorado College, my home in Kentucky, my cousin from North Carolina, and new friends in Knoxville, TN; playground for all-day birthday challenges. The joy is airing out your body up to 700 feet off the deck, looking down at the river running through the valley, looking over to the Gold Coast and imagining the adventure to be had there, grabbing and running up routes with unbelievable holds every few feet. 5.5s that overhang for most of their length.

So the climbing is part of the joy. But the people are how the joy is multiplied. Going back to 2007 with Joe Forrester, I’ve been there Fall, Spring, and Summer in the years since. Joe and I went once in March and had to hike an extra mile and 1500 vertical feet cuz the road was closed. We soloed up a 5.7 and I remember shivering, huddling on a ledge 200 feet below the summit trying to warm our hands up. Our comedy of errors over the years, from sleeping in a crash pad to forgetting stoves to our finger-frozen soloing have added up to the point that my wife, from trips to Linville alone, has surmised that I just barely survive every climbing outing I take. For my birthday challenge at 34 years old, Jesse Weber and I did 3400 feet, most of it simul climbing. We began before dawn and when we finished around 7:30PM, the rain came down like I had never ever seen it. Torrents of rain for hours on the drive home. Rain rain rain rain windshield wipers full blast couldn’t do anything to see the road. All the water, all that emotion and power and love and joy coming out, coming down as I came down off the mountain.

And most recently with a former student of mine, Dustin, and his friend, Russell. Rusell, who had never climbed a trad route. Russell, who had never been up higher than a pitch. We did The Daddy, The Mummy, and The Prow. The Daddy, his first trad climb, 500 some feet long. At the top of the third pitch, we were admiring the clouds getting blazed by the rising sun across the valley. “Do you believe in God,” he asked me. I didn’t know where he was going with that and I was quite worried. “Yes,” I said. “Kind of hard not to!” he replied, and we laughed together at the jaw-dropping beauty around us. He busted his elbow rappelling down to The Mummy, stayed positive. We hiked around to the treasure that is the Carolina Wall only to find our objectives soaked. Climb after climb.

He stayed positive as we bushwhacked through thorns over to the base of the Prow. He was up for trying simul-climbing. His positivity spread to Dustin and me. Of course I would have had trouble being sour considering how long it had been since I’d climbed anything over 1 pitch myself, but, again: partners are joy-multipliers. At the top of the Prow, after around 650 feet or so of low angle 5.4, the entire route drops out beneath you as you traverse left. Russell arrived at the last super-hero move in which you must cut your feet over the wide open air. He paused. Asked for advice. I told him what was required. I had a nice perch from which I saw him awkwardly attempt to avoid the inevitable. As he realized what he had to do, he thrutched around until he could cut his feet. As he weighted his arms, feet dangling, his eyes bugged out of his head from intensity of focus and fear. I was so psyched as he pulled the move and surmounted the belay ledge. His first day of trad climbing, first simul climbing, and about 1700 feet of climbing. I was so psyched for him and for all of us.

As we finished up, all aglow in our day, the hike out harshed the gloriousness momentarily. Perhaps due to the recent Climbing Magazine feature, the ever-growing popularity of the sport, the social mediazation of outdoor pursuits, the increase in popularity of slack lining, or just plain bad luck, our hike out was crowded, polluted with the noise of a drone and the lines and pulleys of slackliners, and hammock-lounging preppy-dressed college kids blasting, of all things, Mariachi music. I made a quick attitude adjustment to preserve my high—these folks are out here enjoying this place just like me. But I’d be willing to bet you a hundred dollars not a single one of them cried from joy as they went home.

School Shootings: A Momentary Pause

On April 16th, The Foundations of Education classes gathered in a small cafeteria at Carson-Newman University and shared what they had learned about school shootings. We shared the video production (see below), findings from research, shared music accompanied by interpretation, and heard from experts in school security planning and a veteran/police officer.

In total, there were 11 committees. As with any good inquiry, more questions were raised as students presented their reports. Each report sparked further discussion. Students compared their experiences of school security, from chain-link fences with razor wire to children running through school parking lots during recess. Reactions included fear of openness and repulsion that school spaces were prison-like. Most of the students who began in favor of teachers being armed modified their positions, but the discussion was informed by data on law enforcement reaction times, not emotional outbursts on the second amendment. Broad, preventative techniques on social-emotional learning were discussed along with anti-bullying campaigns.

The most horrific for me, which shows my naivete clearly, was the presentation of the meme committee. Of course I know about trolls, and I know that there is no perfect reaction to tragedy, but as a parent, I was disgusted by the black humor and racism represented in, for example, a meme with a perturbed-looking woman in a hijab with the caption, “When a white kid shoots up a school the same day you planned to bomb it.” Another showed the Columbine shooters with the caption, “We were shooting up schools before it was cool.” I suppose I expected memes to focus on policy, and some of them did.

One of my favorite presentations was from the music committee, which shared a piece of music and then described, in the language of music theory, how the piece was appropriate for the topic. I don’t know about minor modulation, specialized chords, or the other specialized vocabulary the committee used to discuss the song, but their discussion of the hope, frustration, and repetition hit the nail on the head in terms of my reactions to school shootings.

This wasn’t an ideal project for some students. I didn’t give them much structure, and I was really building the plane while learning to fly it. But the work we did echoed an old call from John Dewey. He noted in 1935 that “our time is not consistent with itself. It is a medley of opposed tendencies.” Teachers must, he said, bear some responsibility for putting the times back in some kind of order. To do so, they must have an idea of what is going on in the world. They must have an “intelligent understanding of the social forces and movements of our own times, and of the role educational institutions have to play.” In this project, they took on school shootings, developed further awareness, shared perspectives, and came away with a greater understanding of their role as future teachers in making schools safer.

School Shootings Project Updates

Defining the role of the teacher: Tiffany Fritts, Lisa Morgan, Danielle, Katelyn

Defining the role of the teacher is interesting to discover. I feel as though I was expecting something else when I was doing my research. I expected to see a plethora of articles about gun control, arming the teachers, and strategies on how the teacher could physically keep their kids safe in the classroom. However, I was struck to see that the majority of articles deal with the mental health of students instead. The teachers claim that they are acting as emotional support for the kids right now instead of drilling them on what to do if a shooter comes in. The teacher’s serve as an outlet for the students to express themselves emotionally. I feel as though this is a good step in the right direction for dealing with the mental health issue.

Teacher Interview re: bullying etc.

Wesley Wunderlin

Interview With Brandie Wunderlin

Where and what do you teach?- I teach at Huntsville Elementary School in Scott County, TN. I teach Special Education and PreK & K.

What are your credentials?- General Ed. K-6th Special Ed. PreK-3rd. Interventionist K-8th, Interventionist 6th-12th.  

What Conflict Resolution Training have you received as a teaching professional? – The Jason Foundation anti-bullying and suicide awareness and professional development days spent on each.  

What Assertive Training have you received as a teaching professional? – Some professional developments seminars during in the summer. Not much thought to the teachers about this subject.

Do you believe that the training that you have done is enough for you to properly help students in situations of bullying?-  Yes, The Jason Foundation gave scenarios and examples on how to mentor students on the proper way to handle bullying also giving us a great resources for warning signs for students being bullied.

What warning signs were you thought, and how often do you see students showing at least one of these signs?- For bullying: Grades drop, a personality change, they exclude themselves for activities they enjoy, becoming quiet, less participation in class, and try to hide from bullies by not standing out. Through the school in my ten years I’ve see it a couple times a year and was more apparent from seventh to twelfth grade.

Do you believe that you have received enough training involving active shooter scenarios? – We do intruder training with our students and we are told to hide under desks while keeping classroom doors locked. Our school has a crisis plan in place with a resource offer that is in the school while school in going on. He is a local police officer that has also received training.

Media Committee: Grace Erwin, Emily Brantley, and Janae Howes

March 23, 2018

Today we had some fascinating discussions in class.  We brought up the topic of the video, and our class voiced many opinions about the repercussions of publishing the video. No one in the class is very sure of how the assignment is supposed to work since there are no detailed instructions, but our group got to share some of our vision for the project in our discussion. Our classmates have some concerns about how our video will portray the individual members of the class.  Many students do not want to feel as though they are being portrayed as the “bad guy,” or that their opinions are being portrayed negatively. This was the first time we have been able to really discuss this project as a class, and despite it being difficult, it was a productive and well needed experience.

“A Project Bigger than Ourselves” guest post by Grace Erwin

Grace Erwin, Carson Newman University

As the media committee, Janae Howes, Emily Brantley, and I have taken on the challenge to make a video representing what our Foundations of Education class is learning about school shootings. When we were asked to research and make a video about school shootings, we were inspired to give a voice to the unheard, uncover details, and ignite a response among our peers. Our video will provide a different perspective and further illuminate the events and impacts of this cultural epidemic. This task has quickly become far bigger than the small class project intended by our professor. In a fast-paced society where everyone has a platform – more voices are being heard, and every action or inaction makes a statement – where social media and the internet have made information and “quick facts” a cheap commodity, we want to make our voices count. We want to transcend the noise of unsupported opinions, and provide fact-based information about school shootings in the past and encourage positive, informed decision making for the future. The goal of contributing to this blog is to document our experience and expand upon the content of our video. We will interview teachers, government officials, and law enforcement officers, research past events and current policies, and will lead discussions in our classrooms and on the Carson Newman campus.

Post-Parkland Response

The school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14th happened during my Foundations of Education class, so we didn’t talk about it until our next meeting, Friday the 16th. I thought we would talk about it for half an hour and move along with what was on the schedule. I was sad and depressed and angry over the shooting and its immediate response, but I thought any difference I felt about this particular shooting was due to my growing awareness that my four year old son could be shot in school. I thought I knew how the aftermath would play out, and I thought my students would be in a similar boat. We were wrong.

And half an hour wasn’t enough. I wanted them to focus on the existential experience of hearing such news as a future teacher. My intention was for them to stick with the emotions, analysis, or whatever it may have been they noticed when they heard about Parkland. They talked about fear, anger, and sadness. And then they started talking prevention and looking for explanations. Focus on the shooter, focus on guns, focus on mental health, focus on teacher training. Then the conversation turned to Carson Newman (CNU). They didn’t know what CNU did in the event of an active shooter—they all know that terminology.

So the designated half an hour grew. I knew my brief attempt to connect their reactions to social-emotional learning as insufficient. So we have taken it on as a service-learning opportunity. They formed committees around their areas of interest: arming/not arming teachers, safety training, bullying, and others. We have no significant number of points attached to this “assignment”—I am relying on their need to know along with a final product that will be a public event.

The current idea for our “product” includes the following:
•    A blog where committees gather resources and track knowledge development on their topics
•    The creation of a movie with the working title, “Why wasn’t one enough?”
•    The hosting and facilitation of discussion groups to be preceded by a musical performance in honor of victims of school shootings.

A framework for their explorations will be learning in place. They will investigate what has happened at CNU in response to Parkland and other recent shootings. They will research the school shootings that took place in the Knoxville area, for example the 2008 at Central High School and the 2010 shooting at Inskip Elementary School. They will talk to local experts on the topic of teacher training.

They have already begun to reach out from where they are with theories, explanations, and ideas for prevention. They will examine policies in Tennessee and the USA as a whole. For example, Tennessee does not allow campus carry.

All of this knowledge will contribute to the discussion groups, which will be held around the middle of April. The goals of the discussion groups will be to provide a forum to share concerns, ideas, and visions for what can be done. Student facilitators will study facilitation techniques in order to be able to deal with the strong emotions that come up with this topic. Our own class is already full of strong opinions and will provide good practice for managing conflict in such a way that students see the human behind the policy position. Once our progress blog goes live, I’ll be sharing.

New Job in a New Place!

I taught my first class at Carson Newman University today! It went well. First days of class are always fun, full of potential. Students still listen to me. Since I teach in the basement, cell service is spotty. Maybe that worked in my favor. And with an ever-expanding list of things to do, I’m glad to be at a place where people are nice. It’s a welcoming atmosphere: “We’re like family,” I keep hearing. And this family has a home: the campus seems well situated and connected to the town of Jefferson City.

As students introduced themselves, I kept wondering why Jefferson City exists. Like what industries and businesses are here? What is their relationship with the university? How much does the place and its history matter to students? I’ve seen dilapidated buildings in an old downtown area and the strip along the main highway with Walgreens, McDonald’s, and a Shell station. And I’ve seen the university-developed cafe/restaurant, conceived and managed by the students in the business department. For me these point to history, revitalization, and future survival. And in the bustle of learning my new tasks, I think of my own survival.

Every time I get one item crossed off my list of things to do, another two or three get added. I presume this will be the case for some time. But many of the tasks will help me develop my sense of this place and my connections to it. I hope that my many projects: teaching courses, chairing dissertations, and participating as a faculty member, will act as vehicles, rather than impediments, to my growing familiarity with Carson Newman University. As time goes on differentiation is inevitable. Surely at some point, some faculty member will say something bad about another (none of that so far!). The campus buildings will not seem as uniform. I will find my way over to Cherokee Lake. I’ll get to know students.

But the challenges are formidable. So much so that I’m kind of procrastinating writing this post. I’m chairing 11 dissertations! They have to have their first three chapters by like November! I’ve got three course preps that are completely new! And I have to drive about an hour and 20 minutes every day! But in a Christian college environment, in which faculty get to talk to teacher candidates in terms of answering a calling and treating all students (and people) as children of God, I feel supported and up to the tasks. I guess we’ll see how the student evaluations turn out!

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Health Care and Education

Brian K. Sohn, PhD, Knoxville, TN.

I sent a letter to my rep, John Duncan Jr. about the American Health Care Act (AHCA). He voted for the AHCA, and wrote me a letter back talking about how AHCA is the best we can do considering the crisis of the ACA. He admitted Obamacare helped some, but he pointed out that in places like Knoxville we’re likely to have no insurers willing to participate in the “marketplace” next year. True point. But ACHA is awful in many ways (more so for women than men). And this should not be an either or argument. How about we address the whole, devastatingly complex health care system in the simplest way possible? Everybuddy in, nobuddy out*. I’ll pay for smokers (I know and love some of you). I’ll pay for motorcycle riders (I know and love some of you, too). I’ll pay for people that are overweight (yep, love you too). In return, I hope others will be willing to pay for this rock climber, skier, and runner.


Bouldering at Sheep’s Nose, CO, 2013

As Trump has noted, runners end up having to get knee replacements! And most of us drive on roads, that’s pretty risky behavior. Single payer. Medicare for all. You can compare away to other industrialized nations that have something like it. Say we aren’t like them, we couldn’t do it. Are we the most addicted populace? Are we the most obese populace? (Are we the most unhealthy populace?) I am not sure any of that would make a solid argument AGAINST single payer.

Trump’s in Australia paying compliments to their single payer health care system. He’s probably had to use it some while vacationing there. Trump, who thinks exercise is bad for you. He might not want to have preventative care provisions, but if we’re so unhealthy, we need them. Personal responsibility has to be part of the changes we make. We need health education overhauled. This is just one way talk of health care reform involves schools and schooling. The other way was illustrated in West Virginia (among other places) back when we got that stimulus under Obama, seems like eons ago. There they used some of their economic stimulus money to put health centers in schools. They took care of some basic needs of their students, some of whom, for whatever reason, didn’t get the care they needed when they needed it. What happened was no surprise to anyone who ever heard of Abraham Maslow. Test scores went up. Now I’ve said before and I’ll say again that test scores hide more than they reveal, are a shoddy proxy for learning, not the way to measure progress, etc etc. But in WV, they were perhaps a proxy for comfort, concentration, care. If your tooth aches you can’t focus. If you feel sick learning goes to the back burner. So let’s have everybuddy in, nobuddy out. Richest country on earth for what? To get richer? How about to get people healthy so they can contribute in their own unique ways?

*Thank for the phrasing, Hamish Gowans.

Energy, Efficiency, Waste, Learning

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Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D.

This diagram represents an estimate of U.S. energy consumption. Like most such diagrams, a little context goes a long way to helping understand them. First and foremost, charts like these are often presented as facts when they are really best guesses. Other organizations have different guesses. All that grey “rejected energy” on the upper right is the energy that is lost or wasted as a result of inefficiency.

Now when inefficiency is used in talking about joules or BTUs (or quads: 1 quad = 1 quadrillion BTUs), you have to keep in mind that we’re talking about inputs and outputs. When we talk of inputs and outputs, most of us need to step beyond the usual bounds of our thinking into the world of physics.

In my introductory physics courses in college, I first learned about the technical use of the term efficiency. We use it commonly in a positive way, but in physics it’s a calculation, not a value judgment. Energy out divided by energy in. That gives a fraction, we convert it to a percentage, and we have to compare relative efficiencies in order to gain any understanding of what is good and bad. For example, a typical gasoline engine is about 20% efficient. Incandescent lights are about 2%. Commercially available photovoltaic solar cells range from 14-19%. With those efficiencies in mind, you can look at the diagram above with more sense of our overall efficiency: around 32%.

100% efficiency is impossible via Newton’s second law: entropy increases over time. That is, even if an energy source is just sitting around, it’s decaying. Whenever we try to convert energy into something usable, some of it (usually a lot of it) is lost. Gas engines produce a lot of heat and noise as they push the pistons. Light bulbs give off heat as they shine. Solar cells…leak. I don’t know where the lost energy goes. Probably not noise, maybe heat.

Just as it is helpful to compare efficiencies of typical energy-consuming items like motors and light bulbs, it is informative to compare how energy use changes over time. Five years ago, we were using more coal and hydro. Every other source has grown in the last five years.

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Over the very long haul, we are using more less efficient energy sources. In 1970, we used around 67.5 quads, but LLNL estimated our efficiency at closer to 50%. The article linked above will give you a lot of information in a short amount of time (it’s very efficient!)

Learning and Energy

Schools use a lot of energy but rarely teach about it. The lights are (usually) on. The rooms are (usually) somewhere between 65 and 80 degrees. At Belfry High School, where I used to work, they ran on geothermal, and even as the sponsor for the environmental club, I didn’t learn that until after I worked there for two years. We tend to only think about electricity when it is lost or when the power bill comes in. But learning about energy should be a major chunk of the curriculum, and not just in elementary school. Even many well-educated people fail to understand how we get it, where it comes from, and where it goes.

According to a professor I talked with, even the smarty-pants students that attend Virginia Tech struggle with the concept of the lifespan, “cradle to grave” of energy. Non-renewables must be discovered, transported, refined, burned, etc. Solar requires specialized materials for construction of cells (and the cells don’t last forever!). And then there are the byproducts. From carbon dioxide to sulfur to ash, production and consumption of energy doesn’t end at the point of use.

With knowledge and awareness of energy source lifespans, people can then grapple with the moral implications. Ivan Illich at one point calculated the speed at which sin begins. That is, at some point our increase of speed is taken out on the rest of the world through car accidents, extractive industry destruction, etc. Yvon Chouinard says that in all the discussions around energy use, no one ever puts taking a step backward on the negotiation table. How about let’s use less? How about turn off devices? How about not drive? All these suggestions can be deconstructed from an economic point of view; someone will always bring up Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio. But those with relative wealth–individuals, businesses, organizations, governments, etc.–consume the most electricity. The moral imperative is theirs, in the case of energy, to take a step back, to design more efficient systems, and, in the cases of Al and Leo, to help educate people on energy.

But I don’t know if the best way to learn is to watch An Inconvenient Truth or Before the Flood. If you want a sense of energy, go to a power plant. See what’s powering your lights. Ask where the resources come from. Find the ways in which you are tangled up in the spaghetti-string diagrams above.


Crossing Wilderness on the Way to Work


A hillside in Eastern Kentucky

What if you had to cross a little wilderness on your way to work?

You may see a snake, venomous, but maybe not. Varmints very well may cross your path while you pretend it’s not frightening. Just a rodent. Only a rodent in the brush.

How many extra shades of green might your eye capture? Mosses, grasses, flowering plants small and large. Bushes and brambles may catch on your clothes, making you less fit to be seen at the office or wherever you happen to be working, with wilderness on the way to it.

There may be a glimpse of something great beyond control, outside the bounds of trammeled and contained. With the lack of structure, your body may feel it can expand, open, free itself in regard to the normal set of rules, but respond on autopilot to ancient norms.

The contrast, perhaps, of this sliver of wilderness you encounter on your way to work may teach you something. You might not have to read Thoreau or Wordsworth or Leopold to know that something in the rest of your life is unspoken to except for when you’re traversing the small section of wild terrain. If you learn of a lack, that could be the first step towards the remedy.

Tennessee is Not for Sale

Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D.

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I went to Nashville Thursday (3/9/17) to join in with clergy, state workers, union members, and other concerned citizens to meet with state legislators to lobby against Governor Haslam’s immoral and unethical plan to privatize thousands of Tennessee state jobs. We were there on the day Senator Doug Henry, the longest-serving member of  the TN state legislature in history, was lying in state in the capitol. Despite the somber occasion, Haslam officials were meeting with the final three bidders involved in his privatization plan. As I have often found to be the case in civic participation guided by moral principles, it was both inspiring and depressing.

What’s in a Title?

One of the actions we participated in was to follow clergy members from around the state to support them silently while they delivered an impassioned letter to Haslam urging him to abandon his outsourcing/privatization plan. We walked from the legislative plaza to the Tennessee Tower silently holding signs we had created that said why we opposed outsourcing. We marched there because that is the location of the “Office of Consumer-Focused Government.” This is the title of the office commissioned by Governor Haslam to carry out his privatization plan. I find the title of this office disconcerting. When the government is so dominated by business that it ceases to view residents of the state as citizens and focuses more on them as consumers (or as taxpayers, as is often the case), there can be an imperceptible shift in attitude towards self-interest. Rather than citizens of a community, folks with a stake and loyalty to our places, we can become simply purchasers of goods and services. This split makes it much easier to consider profits and savings over people and security.

After being told the Office of Consumer-Focused Government did not exist, we began chanting, “Tennessee is not for sale.” We were told we were being disruptive. One of our spokespersons responded that what we were doing is hardly disruptive compared to outsourcing thousands of jobs. They finally agreed to send a representative of the office down to hear our concerns if we would go outside. Although there was much grumbling, we complied and left the building. After some time, we were joined by three representatives of the office (suddenly it did exist!). What followed were clear, funny, desperate, and heartfelt messages from members of our group asking for answers and pleading for their jobs. One woman told us her husband had recently died, and she wouldn’t make it if she was laid off or had reduced benefits. Another had worked at University of Memphis for 28 years and never made more than $10/hour. Her retirement was $400/month. Another asked for $15/hour, noting that if they really wanted to help the economy, that’s the way to do it. “I love to shop!” she said.

Many questions were asked, and the crowd demanded answers. After so many statements from diverse people in church and street clothes, the contrast was stark as the blond, White, business-suit-wearing woman took the microphone and delivered a canned response. “We have answered all your questions during previous legislative sessions and if you want, you can file freedom of information requests to access transcripts. We have noted what you have said today. I have a meeting, thank you for expressing your concerns.” The crowd booed and yelled angrily at her, “You didn’t answer anything!”

Where you’re from matters.

I know that where you’re from matters. That’s one of the major points of this blog. But it matters a LOT when you’re talking to state legislators. I was with two life-long residents of Tennessee as we went from office to office sharing our flier and asking legislators to do something to slow down or stop Haslam’s plan. One of the guys I was with, Troy Smith, a professor from Tennessee Tech, had known one of the legislators, Paul Bailey, since they were in the 5th grade. The other guy I was with, Hugh Piercey, a retired janitorial worker, had met with his state representative in the past and they knew some of the same people. The possibility for this “small talk” was key in gaining deeper access to the people we sought to petition. Being from Kentucky, I felt less able to convince the politicians to listen.

So luckily I wasn’t alone. We talked to 3 legislators and 3 legislative assistants. Most expressed opposition to Haslam’s plan, although one senator said nothing could be done about it. We pointed out several actions the Senate and House could take. “Well, I’ll look into it,” he said. We talked to Senator Mae Beavers’ assistant and she implied that anything Haslam was in favor of, she was against. So far so good. The last person we talked to was Ryan Williams, a representative from Cookeville. We were invited in during a conference call he was in with engineers, yet he gave us his attention. Unfortunately, he talked a lot of circles around what we were getting at. He wanted to look carefully at how the outsourcing could save the state money. He was having lunch with the governor, and promised to bring our concerns to him, which was nice. But I was getting angry sitting there listen to him not answer our questions. I suppose I should have been forceful, but it seemed better to let the local guys keep talking with him.


All day I was talking with the people around me about Haslam’s plan, which would replace state workers with contract employees of the winning bidder. There would be 10,000 state jobs replaced. Many of the same workers would be rehired, but not necessarily in the same location and with fewer benefits. When you replace a long-time state worker with minimum-wage, no benefits jobs, you trade loyalty and tacit knowledge for an unstable, high-turnover workforce. The connection people have to a place comes in part through a job that makes them feel part of who they are. With state jobs, it is part of who they are as Tennesseans. The plan would send millions of dollars to an out-of-state contractor. I know developing governance and budgeting is difficult. But there are a few lies and misconceptions that support moves to privatization.

  1. Private companies work better than government. This idea has been perpetuated as common knowledge, starting most strongly with Ronald Reagan, but continued as a talking point since. Humans run private companies and government, so human error is rife in both institutions. Some say government jobs are too secure, so people become complacent. But depending on the person, the tenuousness of competition is just as detrimental to quality of work as an assurance you’ll keep your job. And in Tennessee’s plan on the books and in the news to privatize, there are no safe jobs in government unless you’re a politician in a gerrymandered district.
  2. Privatization will “save taxpayers money.” In one sense this could be true in the long run if we only examine cost expended on workers. If the quality of the work we receive for the cost is included, if the value of investing state dollars back into the communities from whence the taxes came, if the value of a stable workforce is included, if we take into account the difficulties of the hiring process and downtime caused by training, privatization is not cheaper.
  3. Citizens should focus more on return on investment of their tax dollars than the health of their community. By using terms like “taxpayers” and “consumers” rather than “citizens,” politicians have distracted us from the connections we all have to each other in our communities. Outsourcing removes responsibility to community. As members of our government, it is all our responsibility to ensure its functioning. What the privatization plan does is funnel citizens’ taxes to corporations. We trade connection  and loyalty to communities for efficiency. But the record shows efficiency means facilities that are less well maintained.
  4. “We need to tighten our belts.” This is a lie in that people only say it when they want to cut specific budget items. It is a good way to see what policies people think are unnecessary. But when politicians say we need to cut this or that, it is no more a fact than any other when it comes to deciding how a state that levies taxes should spend and redistribute that money.