Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Vox Pop Year Three: A Return to Core Values

Vox Pop Year Three:
A Return to Core Values

This is a piece freshly penned by Vox Pop's Sander Hicks. Your feedback is welcome, in the comments section, below.

Vox Pop turned two last week. It’s a great chance to stop a minute, and re-commit to the original promise that Vox Pop is all about. Recently in Boston, I found myself explaining to socially-responsible investors that Vox Pop was originally inspired by a hate crime in Long Island: an old white man tried to run over a Muslim woman, in the parking lot of a mall. 9/11 had just happened, flags and confusion were everywhere, and every gas station was hawking anti-Bin Laden t-shirts. Our political system was already broken, already driving people away from each other, with the core values of selfishness, competition-over-cooperation, materialism, and the worship of empty symbols in the form of luxury brands. 9/11 and the legal aftermath took all that to an extreme degree. The old man in the parking lot and the Muslim woman were two temporary lead players in an addled American nightmare. Where in America can people discuss the reality behind the political spectacles? We’ve got McDonalds and Starbucks everywhere. Why can’t we have places that not only deliver food and coffee at high speed, but also something expansive and nourishing for the brain, for the soul? Yeah, that’s right, I said “soul.” If America doesn’t start talking about soul, we’re going to lose that soul, forever.

Vox Pop tried something new on the Friday of our two-year anniversary weekend. Vox Pop longtime supporter/customer, John Webber and I hosted an “open speak-out” at 6 pm. Our theme was: “Republicans Lost…Did Progressives Win?” in the midterm elections. We tried to moderate and guide a free-form discussion on the war, the nature of our broken two-party system, and what a real progressive victory would look like. (Electing Hillary-style Democrats is not enough.) Politics aside, for a second, what I really took from that speak-out is that everyone there got a chance to really “rock the mike,” to fully unload their anger, their passion, and their vision for a better world. Where else in this culture is there a platform for working people to talk about their fears, their hopes? We had people from the NYC Department of Sanitation talking about getting their fellow union members to stop voting against their interests, we had the guy from the new beer distributor happen to stop by and talk about what it’s like to have family in Iraq.

I was surprised at the positive response when I went out on a limb and said that progressives need to understand and use the spiritual gifts we all have. The Right knows the power of community and of church. But they have their mega-churches worshipping a distorted image of a pro-war Jesus Christ. The need for community is apparent within us all. Like progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner says—we are “theotropic”: we are built to turn towards the sacred, to think about big ideas, serious huge revolutionary things like the sacrosanct. The original vision of Vox Pop included the idea that we would hold a lot more speak-out style events. Like an ancient prophet, it’s time for me to call us back to that original covenant we made, a promise we made to live and work for the truth.

The very next day, Saturday, Vox Pop hosted an “Author’s Lunch” with Joe and Susan Trento, the D.C. couple who recently brought out “Unsafe at Any Altitude,” a harrowing look at the false promises of our air security system. Despite the “eye candy” of the T.S.A., 9/11 has not made flying in the U.S. any safer. In fact, they point out, agents of Saudi Intelligence were part of the hijacking team of Flight 77—yet the Saudis are our allies? Our 9/11 Commission overlooked this anomaly (among others). The crowds for this event didn’t approach those of our Greg Palast book party earlier this fall, but Vox Pop was honored to host it, because 9/11 widow Monica Gabrielle attended, as did investigators close to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The J.T.T.F. was in the middle of tracking down Mohamed Atta’s close friend, Wolfgang Bohringer, in the South Pacific that weekend, a case inspired by guerrilla journalists from the scrappy “9/11 Truth Movement.”

On Monday, the Vox Pop Team and I went out to dinner at The Farm, Cortelyou’s new high-end bistro. The meeting/dinner kicked me in the butt: people had serious issues with the toaster, etc. It was time for tech-renewal. We created a list of things to improve, and a shorter list of volunteers to improve them. I put my own name down to do most of the tech-renewal. Dinner soon morphed from an informal staff meeting to a two-year anniversary party. I raised a glass and said something that had been on my mind: we have never had a better bunch of people on the team. I’m blown away by the creativity, the spontaneity, and the gusto of Chad, Carly, Becca, Michael, Chouaib, Liz, Zen, Xander, Everett, and Heavy Metal Chris. Everett, one of our newest coworkers, described the work here as “really rewarding.” We resolved to get together like this more often. I woke up the next morning, with the voice of Whitman in my head. “There are many kinds of love, but none finer than the love of comrades.” I bought us a rotating industrial toaster, a juicer, a George Foreman grill, and a metal rack to create more space to work.

As the General Manager, I look at our sales by category every month. We sell a lot of food: it’s about 40% of our revenue. So, Vox Pop in 2007 is going to add even more to its offerings: the new grill quickly cooks our Veggie Burgers and the new Turkey Burgers. The new juicer can create, from raw vegetables, your choice of a mix of carrot, celery, ginger, and beet juice. In 2007, we want to do more Friday Night Speak-outs, every other week in fact, re-starting this Friday, December 1. We’re going to call them the Vox Pop Eat ‘n’ Speak. We’ll be gathering in the name of free speech, and community, around the tables of Vox Pop, eating healthy foods. At the Eat ‘n’ Speak, Vox Pop will be offering discounted price-fixed dinners for Soup and Burgers, with beer/wine/fresh juice.

Let’s go back and talk about soul for a minute. Not enough progressives do, because religion in this country has been hijacked by a right-wing agenda of intolerance and fear. A lot of liberals are against established religion, because of bad experiences, or a belief that faith is “irrational.” I always try to empathize with the bad experiences--as a Catholic, I’ve had plenty myself, believe me. (I’m tempted to go off about the fundamental dishonesty of the Church’s repression of homosexuality, and its requisite need to cover up its internal pedophilia scandals, but this isn’t the place…) But my faith these days is in what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things.”

There is a set of ideas out there that are bigger than us. These things last forever, while the time of Hillary Clinton and Dubya Bush will pass. The existence of truth, of love, the possibility of peace in our lives, will not fade away. That possibility is a promise. There’s an inner light, inside each of us, and this light illuminates our path towards truth. So, the Vox Pop vision isn’t to trust the Federal Government, or the bipartisan consensus on war and torture, for the truth. Those institutions are broken, waiting for the repairs. Who will deliver those repairs? Who will deliver the replacement model? Not Vox Pop. But Vox Pop does aim to create the platform from which a revolution of soul, of non-violent direct action, can be launched. That’s why we do what we do.

So, at the launch of our third year, here’s our re-commitment:
1- Better equipment for the workers.

2- More good food and fresh juice for the customers.

3- More speak-outs that combine community, public intellectual life, and healthy food
into a whole new way to do politics.

4- The portrait of JFK should be replaced with a portrait of Gandhi. Yes, JFK’s idealism and mysterious death make him a compelling historical subject, but his cold war militarism make him just another corporate Democrat. It’s time to reach farther, and believe deeper.

5- Vox Pop will re-commit to local politics by sponsoring a candidates’ forum in mid-January with all the candidates for the 40th City Council District. It’s a very interesting race, here in our community, since Council Member Yvette Clarke won a seat in the U.S. Congress.

I posted this here on the blog, so I can get your feedback in the
comments section. Not everything is perfect at Vox Pop, and it’s still a struggle to make ends meet, and get the staff paid on time, etc. But I feel, as a leader, who aspires to be of the people, not “over” the people, that only by stopping a minute, and talking about a re-commitment to core values, will Vox Pop move forward, grow, and flourish.


Blogger Danny D. Hairston Jr said...

Dear Sander,

I have to say that I really enjoyed your post. I found it thoughtful and elegantly written.

As a resident of the community for just over sixteen months, one of the first places I visited when I moved here was Vox Pop. I am very much in support of the vision of not only having a neighborhood coffeeshop, but one that actually encourages and promotes community dialogue. As such, I make every attempt to patronize your establishment for the following reasons:

1. because of its commitment to dialogue
2. because I believe in supporting local businesses
3. because books, coffee and politics are my favorite things (and should be everyone's)

Working in youth development, I always offer what I call "orchids and onions." Basically, it is a manner of giving critical assessments. Therefore, with my support, I only have a couple of concerns as a customer who truly values what you bring and could further bring to the community.

1. Consistency of service. While I no longer drink a good deal of espresso drinks, when I did I found that depending on the barista, they were not made consistently. As I mentioned, I don't tend to order barista drinks - perferring drip coffee more so these days - so this matter may have already been corrected.

2. Quality of product. There are times when the coffee I purchase from Vox Pop is very good, however, there has also been a number of times when it has been less so. In addition, I have met with others who have shared this concern as well.

Please know that these suggestions are just that - suggestions. As someone who apprieciates what Vox Pop brings to the fabric of our community, I don't want the quality of the vision diminished by small things that could be easily remedied.

Again, thank you creating a forum for community and expression and while we may not see eye to eye on every position, the fact of the matter is that, especially in this current culture of "you" versus "me" vitrolic behavior, it is more important than ever that we embrace our commonality while respecting those things that make us different whether it be color of skin, culture, religion, world views or ideas.

Thank you for providing this opportunity and congrats to you and the Vox Pop staff on your 2nd year anniversary.

Danny D. Hairston Jr.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous randy nerve said...


I'd like to comment on the following...

4- The portrait of JFK should be replaced with a portrait of Gandhi. Yes, JFK’s idealism and mysterious death make him a compelling historical subject, but his cold war militarism make him just another corporate Democrat. It’s time to reach farther, and believe deeper...

I completely agree with your take on JFK. I've always had mixed feelings about JFK (personally, I find RFK to be a much more compelling, more idealistic, and more radical figure). The next time I stand on that stage, I would be very pleased to stand under a portrait of Gandhi.

As always, your commitment to a positive, brighter, more compassionate future is inspiring. Your work at Vox Pop is inspiring. I consider it an honour to play my music there every month.

Randy Nerve :)

7:36 PM  
Blogger Anthony Lappe said...

Great post. I really admire your commitment to local politics and your entrepreneurial spirit. If we don't create sustainable businesses, who will? As for the product, I've only sampled a little, for what's it's worth, the soup is phenomenal.
Congrats on 2 years in. We need more of you.
Anthony Lappe

9:09 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Great place, though I have to admit I go to VP less. I used to use VP as a place to study but now on the weekend mornings it's tough to find quiet time as, understandably, some local parents bring their kids. Do you have any recommendations. I want to support your ideas and VP is the best place in our section in Brooklyn (where I have lived for 6 years) but I have work to do as well.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Sander Hicks said...

Steve — maybe we could work out a deal with you and get you some study space down here in the basement office? email me: sander [at] voxpopnet.net

And Danny, thanks for the pointers on consistency. Our staff turnover has really slowed down to about zero, we've got great people and no one has quit, unlike the past. Chouaib makes the best capucino foam. I will work with him to make sure everyone's got his high skill level. We could probably all benefit from some skill-sharing. Staff meetings have been happening regularly, as you can see from the essay.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Kenzo said...

Sander et al,

I am curious how you mesh your stated vision that includes "supporting local businesses," "good food," "of the people," "community-empowering," and "fair-trade," with the fact that you sell (and outwardly promote) Perdue (i.e. the turkey burger) and Coca-Cola (i.e. Odwalla) products?

One need only read through the books in your own establishment to see the contradiction here.

I want to support you, yet some of my money will then make its way to Coca-Cola, one of the biggest human rights abusers on the planet (and ranked in the top 14 Worst Evil Corporations), etc.

I heartily encourage you to take an even closer look at the products you carry and thus the corporations you are choosing to support, and consider changes where the conflict in mission is so profound.

Good luck.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Sander Hicks said...


You're totally right. We need to tighten up and always strive to walk the talk. We already dropped Odwalla and haven't sold their juice for about 4 months. Perdue could also be replaced, if you're adamant about it. I am trying to nail down a new food distributor, and I'll see what they have. I know they are big biz, but then again, I need a supplier who I can get through a distributor, or at a restaurant wholesale outlet (like Jetro.) I appreciate your comments, seriously, it means a lot that you care. I just worked a shift myself, and I'm totally wiped out. But it's good to see a new comment here, it's oddly refreshing. Come back and try the new juices we have: Naked, Martinelli's, GUS natural soda, or try out the new fresh juicer! I made a mean apple, carrot celery juice just now....

4:06 PM  
Anonymous kenzo said...


Thanks for the great follow-up! I'm glad you're conscious of these issues, and working on what you can. I'll plan pay a visit and get some fresh juice!

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