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Pete Seeger talks and sings about community and technology

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Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger returned to MIT last week to participate in the "Community, Culture, Spirituality and Technology" panel discussion, to give a concert and to ponder aloud some of the social and spiritual questions that brought him to the campus 50 years ago.

The day-long event was organized by Jane Sapp, a Fellow at MIT's Center for Reflective Community Practice (CRCP) and a Springfield-based singer and community organizer. Some 70 people from Springfield, including members of Ms. Sapp's adult and children's choruses, came to MIT for the CRCP event.

The seminar with Mr. Seeger, held in the Stratton Student Center, explored the positive and negative effects of technology on culture and community.

"This is going to be one of the most exciting times the human race has ever known," said Mr. Seeger after leading the audience in song. "The future is going to be such an interesting combination of government and private things."

Mr. Seeger, 81, has had his share of government involvement in private things.

"I wanted to come back to MIT. I used to sing here in the fifties -- this is one of the communities I could play in. But the blacklist didn't bother me much at all; the John Birch Society attacked me and that gave me free publicity. The more they attacked, the more tickets were sold," he said.

Mr. Seeger's comments responded generally -- and sometimes musically -- to issues raised by his fellow panelists, including the role of the individual activist in building community, the potential of technology to isolate individuals but to unite communities across wide geographic areas, the role of the media in educating and also suppressing free expression, and the ethical responsibilities of scientists in an age of powerful advances.

"Any one of us could put our grain of sand on the right side of the scale," he noted, referring several times to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who "taught us it's better to talk than to shoot.

"I see thousands of good things happening all around us, yet we're not in touch with each other. Here's where these computers come in: we just tap, tap on one of those and ask, 'Is there anyone out there working on this besides me?'

"Scientists have the most dangerous religion in the world -- they believe that an infinite increase of knowledge is a good thing. In this next century, scientists will start to say, 'I've just discovered something I'm not going to tell anyone about,'" he said.

Mr. Seeger was the final speaker in the afternoon panel. The other panelists were Alabama State Sen. Hank Sanders; Martha Richards, director of the Fund for Women Artists; and Choice Jennings of Augusta Technical College in Augusta, GA.

Sen. Sanders reflected on his own experience and on the "powerful spiritual effect" caused by a community's low expectations of individual children.

"Struggle is not to be avoided. It is a gift from God that we ought to embrace," he noted. Sen. Sanders commented that technology, in the forms of television and computers, is a double-edged sword.

"Are we worse off because we're separated? Or better off, because we're more connected? Beware the core becoming empty," he said.

Mr. Jennings spoke enthusiastically of the role of computers in his life (preceded by the role of LEGOs). Ms. Richards, whose career has been in arts administration, addressed issues related to arts funding and the depressing role of media behemoths in perpetuating race and gender stereotypes.

Ceasar McDowell, associate professor of practice in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of CRCP, said, "One of the most important goals of the CRCP is to create opportunities to bring a community perspective to MIT."

"If we do right within the next few decades, people in universities will be working with communities as never before, and people in communities without the means to go to college will be using computers to get information," Mr. Seeger said. "I am not so optimistic as I was when I was young, but I see literally thousands of good things happening all around us."

The Center for Reflective Community Practice (a non-degree DUSP program for mid-career community activists, formerly the Community Fellows Program) presented several other events last week. These included a concert in Wong Auditorium featuring Mr. Seeger, Ms. Sapp and choruses from Springfield. On April 7, CRCP hosted a day-long series of events focused on Boston's Chinatown, collectively titled "The Story of Parcel C: Boston Chinatown's Quest for Change." Presenters included speakers from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Chinese Progressive Association, Boston Chinatown Community Activists and the Tufts New England Medical Center.

For more information on the CRCP, contact Gail Cheney at x3-3216 or e-mail

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 12, 2000.

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