07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mushrooms Keep Sprouting

Anthropologist Margaret Mead is credited with the statement, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Mead supposedly said it at a cocktail party and although she was a prolific author, she never wrote it anywhere. Whether Mead actually said it or not, it certainly is a powerful statement about society and social change. I only hope it is true.

As the economy continues in a tailspin and state and municipal budget cuts loom, small groups are mushrooming, organizing, and fighting back. In New Jersey, thousands of high school students in about a dozen school districts walked out of class to protest against teacher layoffs. On Wall Street on April 29, the long dormant labor movement began to stir, march, and shout against bailouts for banks and brokerages and a jobless economic recovery that has left "official unemployment" at ten percent and the unofficial rate at close to twenty percent.

Voters in over 120 school districts on Long Island are scheduled to decide on school budgets on May 18, 2010. If the New Jersey budget votes are any indication, angry and financially stressed voters will turn down the budgets in record numbers, precipitating layoffs and the cancellation of extracurricular activities and remedial and enrichment programs. Look for another round of student walkouts and escalating protests from parents and teachers as the crisis builds and the mushrooms keep sprouting.

I understand why economically threatened homeowners are voting down budgets, but they are following the wrong path. No one is better off when students suffer, and when young teachers are let go, who will shop in the stores, start families, and purchase homes? Voting down school budgets may provide cathartic releases, but it only makes the economy contract and the economic situation worse.

Some people like to complain that the top salaried teachers are making too much money, but they seem to forget that these teachers have worked for thirty years and repeatedly returned to school to study in order to reach the top of the scale. We owe them a lot of money for everything they were not paid in the first twenty or so years of their careers. The other complaint is that teachers don't work enough hours or days. There are people on every job who do the minimum, but in my experience teachers put in endless hours planning and studying on top of the time they spend working with some of the hardest people on the planet - teenagers.

And the mushrooms keep sprouting. On Friday, April 30 I was the guest speaker at a day care / community center in East New York Brooklyn, an overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhood that has been hit hard by foreclosures and layoffs. Unemployment for young men in this community is probably over fifty percent. Forty day care parents, members of the youth programs, community activists, and staff attended. My talk was titled "Schools Not Bombs" and largely centered on political cartoons, charts, and graphs.

My biggest concern is ballooning state budget deficits that threaten the solvency of the United States in the way the Greek budget crisis threatens the economies of the rest of Western Europe. More than half the states have underfunded pension plans in order to keep afloat and sooner or later this enormous amount of red ink will have to be accounted for. The only solution will be a massive federal take-over of state debt. By the way, there is a legal precedent for this. The federal government took over all state debt after the American Revolution.

Some people wanted to know where the federal government would get all the money. At least part of it will come from closing down the war machine. The United States currently spends almost as much as the rest of the world does combined on military expenditures. According to the National Priorities Project, Brooklyn taxpayers alone will spend $6.1 billion dollars on military spending in fiscal year 2010. That money could pay for health care for over a million people, 35,000 affordable housing units, or for the hiring of 70,000 school teachers.

I concluded by quoting a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered at Riverside Church in Manhattan in April 1967. In the speech King publicly protested against the war in Vietnam. It is an important speech worth quoting here.

A time comes when silence is betrayal . . . Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war . . . The war in Vietnam [or Iraq or Afghanistan today] is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit . . . If we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values . . . When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered . . . Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores . . . Let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter - but beautiful - struggle for a new world.

All these years later, King is still right. That is why I am out there growing mushrooms.