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"If You Don't Fight, You've Already Lost" An interview with Steve Meacham
An interview with Steve Meacham
S ince meeting Steve Meacham six years ago, I have spoken with him many times about the challenges of seeking radical change in the course of daily reform work. Meacham is someone who is in the struggle for the long haul, who is serious about winning, who strives with others to integrate a radical vision with the daily struggle, and who doesn’t give up.
PETERS: Have you always considered yourself a radical organizer?
MEACHAM: I dropped out of graduate school in 1972 and started doing community organizing. I considered myself a socialist, but I didn’t bring that part of my politics into the organizing. We were organizing for things like stop signs. I didn’t talk socialism because I didn’t think people were “ready” for that. But then the people who I thought weren’t ready started recruiting me to be in left-identified groups.
So are you less reticent to talk about radical politics?
My experience has taught me that there are plenty of people who have no trouble embracing a radical analysis. In the 1980s, I worked at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts for nine years. Six thousand people were employed there. On the one hand, it was absolutely awe-inspiring—just the scale of human activity. I worked from 3:30 PM to midnight. If you were lucky, and you weren’t in the bowels of some ship, you could witness this incredible operation— cranes moving, lights flashing, bells ringing, clouds of smoke. It was like an enormous carnival.
On the other hand, it was a hell hole. There were longand short-term health hazards and extreme repression on the part of management. Working in the shipyard was a school of struggle. I learned a lot from it. There were skirmishes with management almost every day. There was this one time when the rankand-file caucuses had organized a protest—I can’t even remember what for. After the protest, management set up this rope fence so that we’d have to go single-file back to work. They wanted to slow down our return so that they could dock our pay. To undermine that, we crashed through the gates. Which is kind of ironic when you think about it—all these rank-and-filers crashing the gates to get into work. But it was a radical gesture nonetheless—a spontaneous gesture that stopped management from screwing us on one small thing.
I happened to look behind me as we were crashing the gates and I saw this guy. He was an alcoholic. Life hadn’t been too kind to him. He looked a lot older than he was. But at that moment, he looked ten years younger. I’ve always remembered that face as the potential for the working class of America. The skirmishes taught a lot of folks about what we can accomplish when we’re organized. They gave rise to incredible networks of conscious workers that had learned a lot about how power works and how to engage in struggle.
I understand the shipyard closed in 1986. What happened to those networks and all the learning that had taken place after the shipyard closed?
It pretty much completely dissipated. People were schooled in a
specific struggle, but there was no organized place for people to
take those lessons. That represented a profound loss. It’s
the kind of loss that’s repeated over and over on the left.
People struggle, expend enormous organizing energy, the struggle
ends, and all that effort dissipates.
In the case of the Quincy shipyards, there was an additional loss because activists had actually connected the class struggle at the shipyard with issues of peace and economic democracy. When it was clear the shipyards were in trouble—around 1982—I helped to found the South Shore Conversion Committee. It was made up of half peace activists and half workers. We called for shipyards to be converted from weapons-making to other purposes—pre-fabricated housing, ocean thermal plant ships, and other large and small civilian uses.
The conversion compromise was a good one. It was a reform that would have worked on a lot of levels. What we wouldn’t give to have jobs like that—with training and decent pay—for youth today? Imagine the government subsidizing non-military use of the plants rather than investing in weapons. A lot of people’s needs would have gotten met at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers. Nobody had an answer for what to do with 6,000 people on the verge of being put out of work—except for us.
All the organizing around conversion gave me a good education on how to combine macro issues with on-the-ground agitating. It was a lesson in economic democracy. General Dynamics preferred to shut down the plant rather than put it to good use. We said back to them, “Well, you don’t have the right to decide. We built this plant.”
Many workers supported the idea of conversion, but the right wing won the critical union election in 1985 in a vote marred by charges of fraud. For conversion to be more than a radical call from the sidelines, the union would have had to back it up institutionally. After the election, they didn’t.
You must have felt pretty devastated.
As part of the international battle against plant closings, one shipyard in Germany had taken over their plant, and they had hung a banner. It said, “If you fight, you may lose, but if you don’t fight, you’ve already lost.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted that banner in my life.
I’m not prone to demoralization, but it’s true, that was a pretty tough moment. But I had seen the potential of organizing. I saw how fertile the ground is. I learned the lesson again that it is not difficult to bring the ideas of the left to the U.S. working class.
What did you do next?
After the shipyard closed, I tried to get various organizing jobs. I’ve been an organizer all my life, but when non-profits looked at my resume and saw that I had been a school bus driver and a welder, they didn’t want to hire me.
I eventually went back to Cambridge and helped to found the Eviction Free Zone. It was an incredible time. Rent control was under attack, which was part of a wholesale attack on working class tenants. There were mass rallies, caravans for housing justice, mass meetings every week of people facing evictions. There were mass testimonies at city hall that were incredibly moving. A lot of tenant leaders who became radical understood that they were making a challenge to capitalism.
In 1999 you started working at City Life/Vida Urbana [CLVU]. At that point, CLVU was 26 years old. How had it survived—unlike so many of the mass-based organizations that were founded in the 1960s and 1970s?
City Life was one of the only—if not the only—community-based radical organization that didn’t break up because of left debates. I think this is largely because the founders had an extremely anti-vanguardist approach. The tendency for many left organizations to pronounce themselves as the vanguard was forcing individual activists to choose which vanguard to belong to. CLVU specifically argued against this trend.
You said at one point, “City Life has the soul of a radical political group.” How do you maintain that in an organization that works on a daily basis for reforms?
We are fighting for an end to economic displacement. We believe people shouldn’t be driven out of their homes by market forces. All the building-by-building organizing we do and policy reforms we fight for are designed to defend the working class of the city against capital.
Our reform work doesn’t just prevent the occasional eviction or improve public policy, it challenges the underlying assumptions about how the system works. Since I’ve been working at City Life, I’d say that tens of thousands of people have been displaced because of speculation. I’m not talking about prices going up because of something real (like increases in the cost of fuel or raw materials or whatever), just pure speculation. Speculators drive the price up, tens of thousands of people are displaced, and no one notices. If it had been a natural disaster displacing that many people, it would have been international news. But since it’s the market—which we perceive as being akin to oxygen—it’s not noticed.
It’s quite ironic because the market is a human construction. We could actually do something about it. It’s a mechanism that we could control. When we offer people a forum to discuss the market as something that is alterable—as opposed to written in stone—then we are taking our reform work in the direction of radical social change. Just getting the landlord to sit down to negotiate reconfigures all the assumptions. It indicates that the market does not have to be the sole arbiter.
What’s another specific example of how you challenge underlying assumptions?
When we have a group of tenants working together, we invite them to participate in political discussion groups. Here, they have a chance to explore in more depth what’s happening to them. We have discussion groups on housing, race, class, empire, and democracy. We do this exercise where we identify what “They say,” and what “We say.”
For example, City Life has a slogan, “Housing for people, not for profit.” At the discussion group, we might ask what the landlord’s response to this would be. People come up with a typical landlord-like response, such as, “That’s my building. I can do what I want with it.” Now that they’ve identified an assumption, they can contest it. At City Life, people learn how to talk back to what previously they might have thought was just part of the woodwork—i.e., not something you could do anything about.
Here’s another thing the owner complains about sometimes. He or she says, “You’re preventing me from getting market rate.” We say, “We created the market conditions. We created this neighborhood. We made it so that it has value. It’s our effort that made this place valuable, not yours.”
People have these concepts pretty readily available. People have a pretty clear understanding of the injustice that they’re experiencing on a daily basis. We just give them a chance to put it into words and to do so collectively and then to organize together in a way that fights those injustices.
One of the things that’s liberating about radical analysis is that you can see what needs to be done. Liberals wring their hands about why people are “stuck in their ways” or “people are just plain greedy” or how “human nature” means that the status quo is inscribed in stone. Radicals see the mechanisms that keep the system functioning. We know what to go after. It’s daunting, but at least it’s not a mystery.
There is not much cultural support for doing this kind of work. How do you support people to push further, to question these seemingly unquestionable assumptions?
From the first phone call to the first meeting and on to successive meetings, demonstrations, and actions, we emphasize solidarity. I’m talking about love, really. We don’t just tell people what their legal rights are and then leave them to figure it out. We listen to them talk about what’s happening in their lives. We give them the space to say how they feel. We help them meet up with others who are facing similar conditions.
The staff is made up of community leaders who came out of various struggles. They are magnificent people who regularly make sacrifices that can’t possibly be explained, except to say they are motivated by love and dedication to their community.
There’s one organizer, Roberta Jones. At a meeting recently, we were talking about the miners who were trapped in the Pennsylvania mine in 2004. Jones noted that the miners had all lashed themselves together so that if they didn’t make it, at least their bodies would all be found together. She said, “We’re like those miners. We’re lashing ourselves together so that we can sink or swim together. But there’s a difference,” she added. “I’m not going down.” That’s the essence of how we support each other.
City Life is a place where people actually experience solidarity. You see it all the time. Tenants from one building show up at another building just to lend their support. People describe the neighbors in their building as family. They defend each other with the same fierceness you might expect people have for family members. One woman I know who’s in her 80s, who’s very quiet, showed her steely side at a demonstration a few weeks ago: “We shall not be moved,” she said with the kind of determination that makes you want to cheer and cry at the same time.
We need organizers for the long haul. How do you protect against burnout?
You have to measure success by how the movement is growing and by how people are moving forward. People are beginning to articulate that there is a better way to live. We don’t have to accept the current conditions.
What is the better way to live that you are hearing people talk about?
Greed doesn’t have to hold sway in certain arenas of human activity. One of those arenas is your home. The cooperative movement contains an embryo of an alternative to the marketplace. People say, “Let’s get together and own our own building. We’ll keep it affordable.” But coops run into an extremely hostile macro-environment. They do contain an important kernel, however. The place where you live, your home, should not be subjected to the greed of the marketplace.
Aside from your organizing aims, how does the culture of the City Life pre-figure a better world?
We don’t treat people instrumentally. We value people for who they are, for their experiences, for what they know. I’m not talking about office skills. Office skills aren’t such a high priority. Anyone who wants to can learn office skills. People who have office skills, but no heart—I don’t even want them around me.
You’ve got someone who’s been around, who’s survived some hard times and learned how to cope with really difficult situations, she’s going to be the one to diffuse a difficult moment in a meeting. She’s the one who knows how to intervene. She’s the one who will make an effective leader.
What is the role of leaders?
The raw material of our movement is people who have been badly beaten up, oppressed, scarred. Radical organizers aren’t trying to “help” anyone—at least in the way that we tend to institutionalize the “other” in this society and then dole out charity to them. We affirm the idea of “solidarity” instead. It would be good to ban the word “client” from use by organizers. City Life members are people who are learning from what they’ve been through and turning that into power.
They are the people who are the best leaders. We need democratic movements, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders helping to give them shape. When you hear some xenophobic comment at a meeting, for example, you need enough leadership in the room to be able to deal with it somehow. Ideally, you offer some perspective that values the person who is the target of the attack, but at the same time you don’t trash the person who is making the comment. That person has value, too. That person is in a process of transformation.
There are many large and small ways that people can use their power. How do you measure the worth of a life?
People aren’t very able to picture their own heroism. Maybe that’s what organizers do—we hold up the mirror so that people can see the heroism in all the daily ways they face life. We look for that in each other and we celebrate that.
Cynthia Peters is an activist and freelance writer living in Boston. This is the first in a series of interviews with activists about how they do radical organizing in the context of reform work.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.