Liberation, John Delloro, and Glenn Omatsu

Philippine Independence Day makes me think of two people — John Delloro and Glenn Omatsu. They make me think about the project of liberation, and how it is a project for everyone. I explain below.

A very good friend, by the name of John Delloro, once wrote, “Reformed laws can be ignored. Progressive electeds eventually compromise. Lessons learned from political education can be forgotten. Services can sometimes breed dependence. But organizing expands democracy and develops leaders.” It’s been some time since his passing on June 5, 2010, and as I remember his life and how he chose to spend it on community organizing, I am reminded, too, of our shared teacher-mentor-friend: Prof. Glenn Omatsu.

Many AANHPI student activists who were part of our cohort in the early to mid 1990s at UCLA knew Glenn well; many more coveted the opportunity to be mentored by him. We affectionately called him “Yoda” because of his deep insight and intellect; I had the privilege to catch up with Glenn last year, and he remains the thoughtful, widely read man I remember him from back then.

As undergrads and, ultimately, grad students in the Asian American Studies program, Glenn taught and treated so many of us (John Delloro, Sarah Eunkyung Chee, Alyssa Kang, Ryan Yokota, Levin Sy, Maria Ventura, Darlene Rodriguez, Joe Penano, Gina Inocencio, Jay Mendoza, Arnold Serrano, Teresa Ejanda, Kay Dumlao, Edgar Dormitory, Darryl Mar, Tony Osumi, Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Nate Santa Maria, Jeff Ow, Ayako Hagihara, Dee Dee Nguyen, Jung Eun-Son, Emily Lawsin, Scott Kurashige, Jeff Chang, to name a few — thank you Facebook) like his family. Like kindling, his words often sparked critical thought and inspiration.

In his well-known “Four Prisons” article published in “Amerasia Journal” (15:1) in 1989, Glenn challenged us to participate more deeply in the dialogue going on around us. He sparked thoughtful and relevant dialogue then, and he makes me think deeply once again now as I read it, especially as we find ourselves in a new era with new economic realities (e.g., a rising Asia, Latin America, and emergent Africa), political struggles (e.g., the conservative Republican Party in deep internal turmoil, emergence of the Tea Party, shifting tide over gun control and immigration reform, renewed assertion of state rights, constitutional fight over ‘same-sex’ marriage), and social movements (e.g., ‘Occupy’ movement and calls for addressing inequality, shifting attitudes in favor of ‘same-sex’ marriage, momentum toward environmental justice work).

In that article, Glenn wrote, “It may be difficult for a new generation…to understand the urgency of Malcom X’s demand for freedom ‘by all means necessary’, Mao’s challenge to ‘serve the people’, the slogans of ‘power to the people’ and ‘self-determination’, the principles of ‘mass line’ organizing and ‘united front’ work, or the conviction that people — not elites — make history.  But these ideas galvanized thousands…and reshaped our communities…But are these concepts relevant today?…Are the ideas of the [Asian American] movement alive today, or have they atrophied into…curiosities of a bygone era of youthful…idealism?

“By asking these questions, we participate in a larger national debate…occurring all around us: in sharp exchanges over ‘family values’ and the status of women and gays in American society; in clashes in schools over curricular reform and multiculturalism; in differences among policymakers over the urban crisis and approaches to rebuilding inner cities; and continuing reexamination of…U.S. military intervention [in foreign lands].” (p. 57)

As we celebrate Philippine Independence Day and remember our friend John, and think about the vital role of Glenn Omatsu in our consciousness as questioning adults, I’m caught in a process of complicating the benefits of a life spent learning and doing, and learning some more, as opposed to a life of doing from old learning. I have invested many years of my life into my education; I learn for a living, in fact, because I enjoy learning from my future-colleagues. What has been the outcome of this passion for learning? Glenn’s “Four Prisons” is a big part of the answer but I also have my own insight to place on top of his.

I believe learning — and learning how to learn — to be the ultimate expression of freedom, a vital expression of how liberation looks like for the self and others. Learning done well is not just understanding the external world and how we construct it with meaning; learning is also gaining insight into our inner world — the person that we are. What is deeply psychological is also sociological, and vice versa. We perform our gender, race, class, faith, thoughts and feelings in our social relationships; we also become what we are told we are and how social forces define/limit us to be. Having the tools to think critically about what we are told by the world, what social trends sweep us away, and why we do the things we do is critical to being free. Not having these tools ensures we settle for building the dreams of others instead of our own.

To liberate those in need — and ourselves — equals sending ‘status quo thinking’ to its knees for sustaining a world of its own making where the old powers keep getting their flow.

Knowing that dualistic thinking gives way to integrative thinking — as our direct experiences and knowledge base broaden — means that certainty is less seductive of a tool in transforming communities. Having certainty rests on simplification, not nuanced deliberation, not critical thinking. What we need more is critical thinking tools: theory- and empirically-driven insight.

Social change relies on critical thinkers because they alone question why things are the way they are, and then act to changing those things. To liberate those in need — and ourselves — equals sending ‘status quo thinking’ to its knees for sustaining a world of its own making where the old powers keep getting their flow. Liberation from the made-up world of the old powers means being aware of the ‘status quo thinking’ that we allow to shape our actions despite them being counter to our self-interests.

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