The Hope and Promise of Government

A few weeks ago I was in Washington, DC and while there I was able to take a tour of the nation’s Capitol building. While the guided tour itself was not overwhelmingly impressive (it was really just a tour of three rooms), I was struck by how choked up I got while touring the large exhibit area connected to the main entrance. Mind you, while I vacillated between being choked up by certain elements of the exhibit and choking on some of its content (most pointedly when the video describing the U.S. Senate said that “because U.S. Senators serve six-year terms, as opposed to the two-year terms of the House, the Senate is a more collegial body than the House”), there were certainly moments where I was absolutely captivated by the emotional tug I felt at the promise of democracy. Now, I have a feeling that my notion of what democracy looks like differs from many who were also touring the Capitol, nonetheless, the mere promise of such a enterprise kindled in me something I rarely feel about my nation’s leaders anymore: hope in the promise of government.

 

What is the “hope”?

In a nutshell, I hope for a government that is guided by wisdom and compassion instead of hubris and self-interest. I want a government that is concerned with the vulnerable more than it is bound to the purse strings of corporations and the owning class. I want a government that has not become its own professional class but instead is there to serve with humility and reason. I want a government that has not become a proxy for one religion or another and instead embodies pluralism along multiple lines of identity. I want a government that is brave enough to govern with a long-term vision even though it may not be politically expedient or “profitable” in the short term for their political careers. I want a government that safeguards OUR future (the “our” being all of humanity) above other political and personal interests.

 

The 5th century Greek origins of the word democracy, demos (people) and kratos (to govern, rule; power), suggest that the people are the heart of this system, not merely polling numbers to be assuaged or manipulated. And, in recent decades it seems that this notion has slipped further and further from the arena of U.S. democracy as “the people” have been steadily replaced by the power and rule of “the few”. To be sure, I’m not at all naïve enough to think that the U.S. ever had a full democracy in the most robust sense of the word – our history is too riddled with examples to the contrary for me to assume that race, class and gender have not been powerful mediators of one’s capacity to engage in this democracy. But, that does not mean that I cannot hold out for a democracy that can embody these principles; that we can someday have a political system that truly responds to the needs of the people.

 

I feel this most acutely at this historic moment when the inevitability of global climate change and the ever-increasing likelihood of a 4-degree Centigrade future is upon us. At no other time has there been a greater need for government to be grounded in our best attributes as people and our best values as a society. The cowardice shown by my government since James Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony has been unbelievable. Its tap roots have ranged from deep ignorance to the selfish protection of their power and the support from the fossil fuel industry to delusional notions that climate change is not even happening, and yet whatever the reason the result has been the same: political inaction that has led us to a truly dire situation. In the face of this, we cannot afford a government operating from a “business as usual” perspective and need our leaders to step up as never before in a true embodiment of the potential and promise of democracy.

 

What is my part?

Critiquing government these days is like shooting fish in a barrel and so it is only fair for me to question myself as a partner in this mess. For example, to the extent that corporations have reached more and more deeply into the political machine, in a small way I have allowed them to do so. I was upset about Citizens United, but I did not protest it. I educated students in my university classes about the political implications of it, I talked to colleagues and peers about how SuperPACs were impacting elections, I complained about it to my neighbors, but I did not actively participate in doing anything about it. In fact, I have never engaged in fighting for solid campaign finance reform laws. I am not saying this as a backhanded critique of others (I mentioned this as a problematic aspect of the “left” in a previous blog), but am earnestly noting that while I have my U.S. Senators’ and my U.S. Representative’s numbers in my phone and call them regularly about other issues, my response to Citizens United shows that I have not done enough to meet my responsibilities as a citizen in a democratic republic such as ours. Thus, it is not a fully honest assessment to critique my government without assessing my own levels of participation, making corrections when and where necessary, and then moving forward with even greater conviction and involvement. In this way the hope and promise of government also becomes the hope and promise of its citizenry. I have a close friend who just this week deactivated her Facebook page (no small feat for her) because she could see that it was more distraction than information. What happens to us when we are less distracted? There is room for more engagement. And so for those who have the time and capacity (recognizing that issues of class, race, gender, and the like are still mediating our ability to fully participate in this democracy) it is our responsibility to do so. A living, grassroots, radical democracy is within our grasp, but only if we are willing to engage as we are able and literally take it back.

 

Referring back to climate change for a moment, this is a crisis of unbelievable proportion and the response must be in equal measure, meaning that we as a human family must respond as a human family and our governments must be able to operate from that place of wisdom and collective human interest. This is not New World Order propaganda, nor Socialism, nor Communism, nor “weak-willed politics”, nor anti-U.S. sentiment, rather it is a clear recognition that we are one species and have one shot at addressing climate change. Government that holds this larger, human, connected vision will be a government that can lead us through the inevitable challenges with grace and dignity and an affirmation of the best of who we can be as people. But, that government will not come to the fore if we as people do not make it so. Standing in the Capitol building there was no shortage of fodder for critique. But there was also something else – ideals, values, and beliefs that within them still hold the hope and promise of government of, by and for the people.

Reflections from NCORE

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) for the very first time.  While there, I participated in a number of workshops and went to several keynotes focusing on racial justice and its intersections with other forms of social justice work.  It was, to say the least, a very amazing and transformative experience.

The workshops I attended varied from “Core Principles of Intersectionality” to “The Colonial Legacy of American Immigration Policy” to “An Exploration of White Speak and Color Analysis.” Each of these sessions provided me a new lens through which to view the equity work I am currently doing in higher education.  However, I want to remark on a few of the workshops and keynotes in which I took a number of things away:

Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane University and MSNBC host, spoke about the need for active pedagogy around teaching race.  What struck me the most was her reframing of service learning, from a currently “missionary” model rooted in colonialism to one that seeks to inspire political activism from students.  Professor Harris-Perry remarked that when she brought students to New Orleans to do post-Katrina service work, it was not the service itself that transformed the students (particularly the white students), but the lack of response from lawmakers when they wrote them to help with recovery efforts.  Thus, this service learning did not just aim to provide volunteers to help with community rebuilding, but it also sought to reframe the recovery efforts through a political activism lens, and one that was clearly centered on the racial dynamics at play. I believe it is this shift from a “missionary” framework of service to one that is imbued with humility and grace that affords college and university campuses in the U.S. a much more authentic and effective social justice framework from which to operate. As we share in our trainings across the country, it is easy to say an institution is committed to social justice and equity on campus, but it is another to actually act like a social justice institution and Professor Harris-Perry’s keynote elaborated deeply on exactly that point.

Paul Kivel and Amer Ahmed led a two-part workshop on challenging Christian hegemony, and its connection with other forms of oppression.  Previous to NCORE, I had not had particularly focused conversations on the ways Christian hegemony permeates every aspect of U.S. society, and so this workshop was incredibly insightful in understanding the ways it operates in everyday life.  From the days we privilege people to take off for holidays (e.g., Sundays, Christmas, Easter) and not, to our society’s attitudes about purity and charity and how they manifest themselves in public policy (e.g., abstinence-only sexual education, anti-LGBT laws, resistance and/or the dismantling of social safety net programs, the funding of faith-based programs, etc.), Christian hegemony runs deep in every aspect of U.S. life.  And as someone who was raised Roman Catholic, though I no longer identify with Christianity, this workshop opened my eyes to the force this religious hegemony plays in this society.

Dr. Joy DeGruy talked about her research around post-traumatic slave syndrome, which focused on the ways the numerous trauma of slavery has been passed down generation to generation in African-American communities, and the impact that this trauma has on African-Americans every day, from adverse health effects to the ways entire communities are socialized to internalize racist attitudes.  For me, this workshop connected the head with the heart, and it made real the ways racism has adversely affected the mental and physical well-being of millions of African-Americans in this country.  Moreover. Dr. DeGruy demonstrated how every single institution within this country “from medicine to law and education to religion” has perpetuated this multigenerational trauma. The profound impacts of racism (and whiteness) across generations cannot be overstated and one of the dimensions we add to trainings is that element of the body. Specifically, Susan and Heather do work with white people regarding the long-term impacts of whiteness and its deep impacts on whites’ inability to be strong allies, and it is this work that all racial identity groups need to add to our repertoire when challenging racial oppression / working toward racial liberation. If you have never had the opportunity to hear Dr. DeGruy speak, I strongly encourage you to do so as she is dynamic and the content is incredibly compelling. You can also get her book Post-traumatic slave syndrome from her website.

– Finally, Robert Jensen from the University of Texas at Austin gave the closing keynote, entitled “The Craziest Person in the Room: How Can a Mediocre White Guy Be Useful?” Dr. Jensen spoke at length about the climate crisis, honestly and directly talking about the ways in which humans are passing the point of no return with respect to how we are treating the environment.  I appreciated his frankness about the ways capitalism has directly created this crisis, from the stresses we have created to the earth and the atmosphere for our demand for consumption and technology, to the exploitation of millions of underprivileged individuals across the globe, most of whom will be directly and firstly impacted by the effects of climate change.  However, I found two areas of his keynote to be slightly lacking. First, while he gave a very typical analysis of the current climate situation, he did not actually offer a solid analysis of where to go. I find this common among white, male academics – they are often quite good at critique and identifying the “problems in the system”, but they rarely have a substantially “out-of-the-box” framework for how to shift to the next level of addressing the situation. Certainly, as Heather has identified in earlier blog posts, merely changing out light bulbs is insufficient in terms of response to this large, global crisis. And yet, merely offering a critique with no new thinking as to where we can go to next was problematic for me and simply fed that audience’s paralysis.

Second, his response to interrupting systems of oppression was framed around being “the craziest person in the room”, an incredibly ableist framework that only serves to marginalize people with disabilities and reify structures of power based on dominant group access.  I know that in my experience, I have inadvertently used language that has proved marginalizing towards individuals, including communities with disabilities, in order to prove a point or advance the cause for a certain issue or a particular group of people; consequentially, over the years I have done equity work, I have aimed to use frameworks and language that are inclusive, while simultaneously trying to hold myself and others around me accountable for perpetuating systems of oppression in this work. As a result, strongly encourage all of us with dominant identities, including Dr. Jensen, to take a closer look at our privilege such that we can incorporate a more comprehensive social justice analysis and not further marginalize anyone along the way.

 

All in all, NCORE was a fantastic conference, and I look forward to attending next year!

Facing Climate Change

Over the last four years I have been doing more and more research, teaching, speaking and training on climate change and its deep connections to social justice issues, particularly race, class and gender. And while the parallels and interconnections of climate change content to these social justice issues (and others) cannot be denied, there is one significant difference between climate change and other social justice issues: independent momentum.

 

For example, while race / racism / whiteness is incredibly challenging to talk about and difficult to change, it does have a hopeful aura about it because it is completely a human invention (as is sexism, as is classism, and so on) and therefore lies completely within the realm of human beings to change. As such the limiting factors focused on in these trainings, things such as limited knowledge about systemic oppression, lack of awareness regarding the dehumanizing aspects of oppression for everyone, or the need for more compassion and care in how we engage with each other, are all human attributes and signify that we can end these forms of oppression as soon as we “wake up” to these realities. As an extreme example, if every man woke up tomorrow and said, “violence against women will end today”, it actually would (or at least it would in short order). And that’s the hopeful news about these more commonly discussed social justice issues – there actually is room for sudden awakenings and dramatic changes in a very short period of time, and all of that is mediated by human choice individually, culturally, and institutionally.

 

In contrast, if every person in a carbon-fat society (those that consume the most carbon either overall or per capita on the planet) woke up tomorrow and said “climate change is going to end today” it would not. You see with climate change we are not dancing with our own conscience, our own lack of information, or our own ability to act upon or change the problem. With climate change we are in a dance with an independent entity – the climate system. To be sure, we humans have placed the initial energy (increased CO2 and GHGs) into the system, but because that system now has independent momentum, we humans cannot stop it on a dime just because we wake up one morning and want it to stop. Said another way, due to the above-Holocene-average amount of CO2 we have already loaded into the atmosphere, we have committed to a certain amount of inevitable climate change, no matter how we “feel” about it or what kind of personal transformation we have regarding it. The climate is beholden to the laws of physics, not to the capricious will of human beings.

 

And this is what makes climate change such a remarkably challenging issue to teach, speak and train on – there is no easy ending where we can “all just get along”. Climate change is already in motion, and no amount of wishing it to be otherwise or changing our mind is going to stop what has already been set in motion. As Bill McKibben said at one of his “Do the Math Tour” talks I was at, “the physics and science of climate change does not negotiate,” and therefore we cannot simply decide for this to stop and have it stop. Instead, we have to live under the reality of the laws of the physical universe, and those laws are clearly spelling out substantial climactic change for the future of this planet. To make matters worse, even though we would like systems of oppression such as racism and classism to end as soon as possible, with these issues there is no definite time-scale for the changes to be made. With climate change, however, there is a time scale and we humans are daily losing more and more ground regarding our ability to impact the duration and severity of climate change because of our anemic responses. Taken together, these climactic realities (that the climate is an independent system which we cannot control as we wish and that there actually is a clock ticking regarding our actions) make climate change an often terrifying and paralyzing issue in ways that other social justice issues are not.

 

So how can we talk about climate change without sending folks into a pit of despair? I have attended a few trainings recently where there were examples of what to do and what not to do, and yet even the trainings that had the “to do” elements felt a little incomplete. As such, in addition to teaching about the science of climate change, the large-scale actions taking place around climate change, and the great ways that we as individuals can make a difference, I have been including three other components to my talks:

 

1. Framing this climactic moment as an “evolutionary leap” for humans,

2. Framing it as a moral and spiritual issue,

3. And framing it through a social justice lens.

 

Speaking to the first point, there have been moments in this planet’s 4.5 billion years where species have seemed to make substantial leaps evolutionarily. Certainly this can be attributed to holes in the fossil record, but I also contend that there were moments in our planet’s history where there was a “leap” evolutionarily whereby in a comparatively short period of time, a species was able to “suddenly” adapt / respond to drastically changing conditions. And given that this moment is wrought with drastically changing conditions, it seems to me that framing this as a moment where our species can actually “evolve” in our relationship to nature, to each other and to ourselves is possible (some in this field would argue not just possible, but necessary if most on this planet are to survive). Why is this useful? Well, for one it gives us a reason to “lean in” to the issue instead of running from it. Two, it encourages us to open our minds to possibilities and ways of being that we have not considered before because of the stuck-ness of “that’s the way it has always been”. And three, it frames the current climate moment not as an apocalyptic doomsday event, but as a source for our species’ growth and maturation. And finally, while framing this as an evolutionary moment lends itself to more positive ways of viewing this climactic moment, it also takes nothing away from the current (and future) climate reality and therefore does not feed denial or delusion about climate change.

 

Once established as an “evolutionary leap” moment, I have found that in order to lean into this framework, a deeper motivation is necessary than the standard “let’s preserve our way of life (read the U.S.’s standard of consumption) for future generations” or “let’s save the polar bears”. Self-interest and abstract examples have not been sufficient to mobilize our society in emotional, political or economic ways that correspond to the degree of the problem. In fact they have served to keep us stuck in ways that feed the problem by legitimizing our over-consumption and by making climate change a problem that is “out there in the Arctic” and not something that is right here, right now. In place of these inadequate reasons we need motivations or internal drivers for action that reach deep into our psyches and that galvanize our hearts and minds in our resolve to do everything we can in the time we have, even if it seems like it will not matter. That is why it could be referred to as a “spiritual” conundrum (notice I am NOT saying it’s a religious one) whereby it is a call to question for each and every person: If not me, then whom? If not now, then when? To be sure, the tap-roots that allow humans to stand steadfast in the face of incredibly difficult challenges are different for each and every one of us. The need for the tap-root in such circumstances, however, seems to be universal. With such a foundation in place we can do this not because it is easy, not because it is sure to succeed, but because it is right.

 

And finally, having given ourselves to this human moment and its possibilities, and been steeled by the tap-roots we each draw upon, I believe we must then use a social justice lens as our compass for action. More specifically, I believe that non-dominant perspectives and comprehensive questions of power, privilege and access need to be at the forefront of every conversation about climate change. Internationally, it means the needs of the most vulnerable nations must and will be attended to immediately. Nationally, it means that we will consider the needs of people before the needs of corporations such that our political and economic decisions flow from a desire to best serve the health and well-being of all of the people, instead of having the laws and economics of this society first serve the corporations; we will not protect the needs of the few at the expense of the needs of the many. Regionally, it would mean that we in the upper Midwest would consider how we can work more cooperatively among ourselves and with other regions to become more sustainable and transition fairly and securely to a post-carbon life. As such, state and local legislation would reflect that value and work to support our entire state and community in this endeavor; no one will be left behind. And individually, it means that I connect more with my immediate neighborhood and work collectively to insure that we are all getting our basic needs met and are able to nurture sustainable environments capable of adapting to a much hotter and different life on this planet.

 

Understanding what the many problems are in terms of climate change, there exists a range of ways we can respond. Some of those responses will bring out the very best our species is and can be, some will bring out the worst. We do have a choice in which response comes to the forefront, but we cannot hope that business-as-usual will bring about the most noble and compassionate within us. Instead, I believe we need to live within the scientific reality of climate change and in the process see it as an evolutionary moment for our species, driven by our deepest and best motivations for all of humanity, and guided by our commitment to social justice and equity for all people. In this way we will not be able to avoid the inevitable climate change we have already set in motion, but we might just be able to dramatically slow any additional changes and then respond to the impacts that are coming with the very best of what makes us human. This, I believe, will be the most valuable gift we can give to those who follow – in exchange for hubris, consumption, and damage, we can leave a legacy of hope…hope in our possibility, hope in our ethics and morality, and hope in our commitments to each other as a whole human family.

A Week At the White Privilege Conference – Musings On Tone

Talking about white privilege is hard, no doubt about it. Talking about it in groups is even more difficult. To be sure, therefore, talking about it with over 2000 people is beyond the pale (pun intended). But, two weeks ago I was in Seattle for the 14th Annual White Privilege Conference (WPC) and it was several days of challenging and very engaging dialogue. Fears arose, brilliant insights were shared, guilt popped up everywhere, different levels of awareness had folks verbally and intellectually “bumping into each other”, tears were shed, hearts were opened, and all in all it made for an exhilarating several days.

 

But, amid all this inspiration there is one thing that stuck in my craw a bit…and it was the issue of tone, specifically the use of cynical, sarcastic, “judgy” tones on the part of white folks to other white folks. It’s a pretty standard phenomenon, really. White people are quite scared when talking about issues of race, and specifically white privilege, and out of this fear often react in a range of ways depending of course on their level of knowledge, experience, and skill. More specifically, in the case of public settings such as this conference, some of the more problematic ways that white folks respond to these issues is through the vehicles of cynicism (to show how analytical one can be), talking non-stop (to show how much one knows about the issue), or self-criticism (to show how serious and truly progressive one is about the issues), and it is these means of engaging that got my attention at this year’s conference. The act of calling oneself out as a hypocrite or as a “white ally with a lot more work to do” has its utility, but only if it is done in balance with principles of compassion, empathy and care. This is not merely my opinion, it’s just good pedagogy. I have seen very few students in my classes, or participants in my trainings, be motivated both intellectually and emotionally through my use of cynicism, by talking “at” them, or via incessant criticism of myself, and by its passive-aggressive implication, them. And given that best practices in education, new studies in learning theory, and basic brain analysis tell us that the best learning definitely takes place when the cognitive and affective dimensions are both engaged, it makes absolutely no sense to engage with each other in a way that shuts down the heart, primes the mind for criticism and attack/defend, and ultimately discourages deep learning.

 

However, despite the above knowledge there were several moments over the 4 days of the conference where it felt like whites were almost competing with each other in their use of cynical, self-critical, incessant dialogue in the service of calling out whiteness – which was often just cover for accusing other white folks for not doing enough, as well as a way to “prove” what a good anti-racist the speaker was. As stated above, it definitely is important for white folks to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and our role in racial injustice/justice in this society, but at this conference I was able to see the starkness in contrast between doing so out of a place of criticism, self-righteousness, and what in the end felt like (and was) arrogance versus a place of love, care, empathy and deep sense of community (while not holding back on the honest and thoughtful observations of whiteness).

 

Case in point: In one session I was able to see the speaker presenting what was quite powerful information, albeit quite sharp and possibly difficult to digest, in a manner that was so indirectly (and eventually directly) accusatory of the participants that after a while people simply shut down. In racial justice circles this shutting down is often read as “resistance” and yet in this session what I was seeing was not resistance coming out of a place of privilege, but simply the body not being able to hold one more nugget of information in the form it was being presented. This I am sure, was the opposite effect the facilitator wanted, and yet the means by which this white person was presenting the information eventually made it impossible for many in the session to both cognitively and affectively take any more of it in; the affective shut down, leaving less room for the cognitive.

 

Instead, it would have been preferable if the facilitator could have simply paused, recognized in a sincere and humble manner his own humanness, his own feelings, and ultimately his own body, and then continued with his workshop in a more embodied and grounded way. Had he done this, he might have felt his own disconnection from the content and then extrapolated that perhaps the attendees were also feeling this way, thus suggesting a slight change of tack in his delivery. Unfortunately, this did not happen and I watched every single person within my line of sight thoroughly check out of the workshop well before it ended.

 

Let me say again that I am not suggesting that we coddle whites as we struggle with accepting the reality of white privilege. The crisis state of racial dynamics in this country demands a clear and powerful turn of attention on the part of whites to issues of whiteness and how we fuel the systemic oppression of people of color. But, we have to get past the rhetoric of progressive cynicism in the name of “doing the hard work” and instead come from a place of compassion and care as we wade into the morass of pain and confusion that is the legacy multi-generational whites must face in order to get to the root of whiteness within each of us and in turn in this society.

 

 

A Week At the White Privilege Conference – Introduction

My apologies for the delay in blog posts, but these last few weeks I have been preparing to present at the White Privilege Conference and that took time away from writing. As I write this, I am just returning from Seattle and the 14th White Privilege Conference and it was once again an excellent experience. I want to give a huge thanks to both the national and local teams for their tireless work, the countless volunteers supporting the conference, and to the many presenters who contributed their energy and brilliance to make the conference such a success. I strongly encourage anyone committed to racial justice work to consider attending the WPC next year as it is a transformative experience.

 

And what makes it so? Well, the very name of the conference makes it an exceptional event because it places myriad elements of white privilege at the center of analysis and discussion in a manner that is rarely undertaken. Certainly there are many conferences around the country that address racial issues, cultural issues and/or racism, but very few conferences “call out” what is at the heart of the system of racial inequity in this society in the way WPC does. And this is a critical point: so often when I ask white folks why racial oppression is such a pervasive and powerful force in this country, they invariably say it is because of “prejudice”, or the “systems that target people of color”. And while it is true that both of these are massive factors in the propagation of racial oppression, it is important to note that the driver of racial inequality is actually neither of those things. Let me explain…

 

Prejudice, as we know from the ample body of research on the psychology (both individual and group) of prejudice, the sociology of prejudice, the brain functions associated with prejudice based on socially constructed axes of difference such as race (skin color), has to be taught/learned and as such can be un-taught/unlearned. Therefore, it seems illogical that something which has to first be taught and that can be unlearned in a generation or two is the sole reason why racial oppression is so persistent in the U.S. Similarly, because the oppression of people of color takes such an inordinate amount of resources to enact, has no logical function for any healthy society, and cannot be justified in any reasonable way, there has to be a deeper reason, a more compelling reason for racial oppression’s enduring presence. That “more compelling reason” is that the group doing the oppressing is getting something out of it. And, in this case, white people are getting something very tangible and very powerful out of the structure of racial oppression.

 

To illustrate, it is common knowledge that red lining was (and still is, just not as overtly) used to intentionally racially segregate housing across the U.S. whereby people of color are denied access to homes in communities with the better schools, transportation, parks, and overall living conditions. Obviously, however, these houses do not go away as a result of this process, and therefore “someone” has to fill them – that “someone” is of course white people. Thus, the end result of denying preferred housing to people of color is that more houses (and all of the other benefits that come from safe, healthy housing) are available to whites in these areas.* And so, for every resource denied to people of color in this country at the hands of structural racism, there are more resources available to whites. And when we consider that racial oppression operates in exactly this way throughout every sector of this society, it becomes apparent why the real driver of racial oppression in this country is the endless list of benefits and advantages that white people accrue as a result of it. For this reason, creating an entire conference that so openly and honestly addresses this underlying motivation for the maintenance of racial oppression in the U.S. is a bold, powerful, and much needed event.

 

So what does it mean to have a conference about White Privilege? Some fear that it is all about “hating white people”, and yet in point of fact the exact opposite is true; this conference is committed to the liberation of everyone from the limiting and violent confines of racial oppression. For me in the few years I have been attending it, this liberatory message has come as much from the keynotes and workshops as it has from the personal and relational commitment attendees make to lean into these issues, do our own work, and seek a more racially just society together. This alone is a challenge to the highly individualized, overly intellectual, non-relational, and emotionally distant macro racial narrative of U.S. whiteness and says quite powerfully that we are going to challenge these issues as a community in order for all of us to be able to live peacefully in a racially just world. We cannot achieve this alone, we cannot hope for this just for ourselves or for those immediately around us, and we must strive for racial justice as if our small lifeboats are lashed to everyone else’s lifeboat and we will either all rise and be liberated together – a far cry from white liberalism, and a more likely recipe for the achievement of social justice in this society. And this is one of the elements of WPC that makes it vastly different form other professional conferences: it’s about the “we” and our human commitments to being our best selves with and for each other.

 

If you are reading this and have not attended the WPC or have not even examined issues of white privilege before, I strongly encourage you to do so and use it as a place for deeper investigation and incredible motivation as we all strive for a better society.

 

* An excellent and more detailed discussion of this and other race-based means of denying resources to people of color and allocating resources to white people can be found in George Lipsitz’s book The Possessive Investment of Whiteness.

A Compassionate Education

I wasn’t feeling 100% the other day so stayed home to rest and do just a little work (hard to stay completely away from it) and over the course of the day read The Wisdom of Compassion by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan (2012). One of the things I so appreciated about this book was the storytelling nature of it – Victor writes from the perspective of accompanying His Holiness to various places around the world and recording the interactions, comments, and teachings of the Dalai Lama. Through this lens a beautiful balance is achieved between the awe inspiring elements of the way His Holiness moves through the world and touches the lives of so many, and the very human and humane aspects of his everyday engagement with the most subtle aspects of life. I found it inspiring because of how accessible the Dalai Lama’s humility makes him.

 

While so much of the content of the book is relevant to social justice and equity work, I was particularly struck by the mention of how notions of compassion, empathy, and mindfulness have been applied to P-12 educational settings. The Dalai Lama states, “My hope and wish is that, one day, formal education will pay attention to what I call education of the heart. Just as we take for granted the need to acquire proficiency in the basic academic subjects, I am hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness (p.93).” It seems that many educational researchers have taken up this charge by His Holiness. Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, for example, in her work at the University of British Columbia has developed mindfulness frameworks for both students and teachers which have had far-reaching impacts. In another quote from the book it is stated that, “In 2010, U.S. researchers analyzed 213 studies involving nearly 300,000 students in elementary and middle schools. They found that those students who received social, emotional, mindfulness instruction scored 11 to 17 percentage points higher on achievement tests, compared with those who did not receive such instruction. The students also felt better about school and behaved more positively. The result? Fewer incidents of alcohol and drug use, violence, and bullying (p. 160).”

 

In everyday life it should be obvious that when one is more compassionate and caring, they will be happier and that, in turn, will have substantial impacts on all areas of their life, including school. And yet, in all the work I have done in schools over the years I have not encountered one single institution that integrates mindfulness in their in-service training for teachers, their curriculum, their counseling practices, or their discipline practices. Not one.

 

How is it that we, who pride ourselves on our expertise regarding teaching and learning, so thoroughly miss this simple fact and as a result deny our students a range of skills that have proven for millennia to be emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and socially beneficial? There could be a range of answers to this: the focus on standardized testing, overcrowding in our schools, a teacher education and preparation system that has not kept up with this research, or perhaps good old-fashioned xenophobia about anything that can be affiliated with a “religious” perspective that is not in line with U.S. Christian hegemony (on occasion I have been told not to say the word “meditate” when I do my training ground-ins because some staff will think I’m talking about devil-worship or cult practices). In my teacher education work at St Cloud State, however, I began using excerpts regarding mindfulness from Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain (2007) and then later Davidson and Begley’s The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2012) and it really struck a nerve with students; they felt the truth of the content as much as they cognitively understood it. This also bore out in the first class of the semester when I would ask students to, “List the qualities of your favorite, most impactful P-12 teacher” and invariably they would list characteristics that were connected to the principles of mindfulness, compassion, empathy and care.

 

Given the above-stated research evidence, personal experience and simple human truth, I invite anyone involved in education to more intentionally integrate mindfulness and the development of skills regarding compassion, care and empathy into their educational work. In particular, for schools and districts addressing issues of equity and social justice, a commitment to developing mindfulness is even more critical. Equity in our schools simply cannot / will not be achieved without a deeply felt sense of compassion and care for each other. Racism, sexism, classism and the like all serve to divide the human family, prey upon our fears, create imaginary “others” and lead us down a path of division, derision, and struggle. Compassion, care, empathy, and love, however, do just the opposite and make schools and society safer and more productive.

 

Genuine compassion, as it is discussed in another quote from HHDL, is, “based not on our own projections and expectations but rather on the rights of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop a genuine concern for his or her problems (p.1).” Given this perspective and the intense complexities our young people are facing today, it is clearly time for our schools to set a new course in education, one that prepares our students to be successful in school and life with respect to both their minds and their hearts such that they are able to act upon and within the world with wisdom and compassion.

 

H.H. Dalai Lama and Chan, V. (2012). The Wisdom of Compassion. New York: Riverhead Books.

Trans Equity In Higher Education

Providing full gender equity for trans* and gender non-conforming students, staff, and faculty members is an ongoing challenge at many institutions of higher education across the country.  I fully believe that in order to achieve full gender justice on college and university campuses, trans* and gender conforming individuals must work together to envision what a truly equitable and just campus would look like.  This is not easy work, but I think it can be helpful to highlight some of the amazing work being done across the country.  Some of the work that I see being done on college and university campuses includes (but by no means is limited to) the following.

 

  1. Gender-neutral housing options.  Many students have talked with me about the need for more safe and secure housing on their campuses, as well as the discrimination they have incurred on account of their gender identity or gender presentation within these spaces.  Many residence halls are gendered spaces that reinforce rigid gender expectations on their residents, force students to live in a space that consistently refuses to validate their gender identity, and lack any feeling of safety or privacy, particularly in shared bathrooms or living spaces.  Consequently, at many campuses, this has meant the creation of gender-neutral housing for students, such as the development of Everybody Loves Everybody, an LGBTQIA and allied living community I advise at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.  These spaces are not only provide a more suitable living option for gender non-conforming students, but also meet a larger demand by students around the country who are asking to be allowed to live with any other student, regardless of gender.
  2. Athletics.  Trans* athletes can face enormous barriers to play on collegiate sports teams, including discrimination and harassment by teammates and coaches, a hostile campus environment, or even barring by administrators to play on such teams.  Many collegiate athletic programs around the country are realizing the need for full equity on all of their teams.  As a result, the NCAA Executive Committee approved new policies in 2011 aimed at greater participation by trans* athletes.  As a result of these recommendations, I have helped train a number of student athletes, captains, coaches, and athletic personnel around fully embracing gender diversity within their athletic programs.  Nevertheless, restrictions still remain, and participation by students on the team of their choice can depend on having access to medical insurance that will pay for hormone therapy.
  3. Preferred name policies.  Students’ names are used publicly on a daily basis to identify individuals and to affirm one’s gender identity, as most names have are gendered.  However, the names on class rosters, on student identification cards, on online directories, on residence hall rosters, on transcripts, and on official communications with the college—among many other things—usually, by default, are one’s name assigned at birth rather than one’s chosen name.  Some colleges and universities have responded by developing preferred name policies, allowing internal systems (i.e., class rosters, student identification cards, etc.) to identify a student by their preferred name in all cases where it is not legally required to do so.  Institutions that have adopted such policies include Bridgewater State University, Connecticut College, and the University of Vermont, among others.  I have also been involved in conversations with my campuses and others across the region in attempting to develop preferred name change policies that allow for students to identify how they choose.  Nevertheless, one’s preferred name is not allowed on documents pertaining to financial aid, official transcripts, and oftentimes official correspondence with the institution.  With the legal and monetary barriers in place for someone to try to change their name, although a college may have such a policy, many students are often left with getting various documentation with different names.  Thus, I strongly believe that more advocacy and policy change is needed at both the state and federal level to eliminate barriers around changing one’s name.

 

These three examples in no way encompasses all of the amazing work being done, including the organizing the University of Minnesota Transgender Commission has done to increase restroom access on its campus or how many campuses now offer fully trans*-inclusive coverage in their health plans.  Nor do these examples fully capture the enormous challenges facing trans* and gender non-conforming students.

 

I believe that it’s imperative to work with students, staff, and faculty to demonstrate that every person participates in systems of gender and genderism.  In doing so, individuals can understand how genderism impacts them (though its impact on trans* and gender non-conforming individuals differs greatly than on gender conforming individuals) and take ownership in the ways they enable barriers to be placed for trans* individuals on campus.  Furthermore, I strongly believe that this work must be done in community: It is when we work together as a coalition of students, staff, faculty, and administrators that long-lasting, sustainable change occurs.  Thus, change on campus depends on individuals being aware of how gender fundamentally impacts them on a daily basis, how they participate in such gendered systems, and needing to work in coalition with others to promote positive policy and cultural changes on campus.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.

 

A Few Reflections On “Being An Ally” and Other Motivations for Equity Work

“Ally” is rarely a word I use in trainings and consulting work anymore, although it is still widely heard with respect to equity and “diversity” work in schools, on college campuses, and in many workplaces. And while its intent is often good, its impact and implications for achieving the goals of equity and social justice need to be examined. For example, I stopped referring to myself as an “ally” to People of Color in anti-racism work the same time I truly began to understand that ending systems of racial oppression was as much about healing my own humanity and amending the legacy of White collusion with racial oppression as it was about ending the systemic and systematic oppression of communities of color in this country. And that transition was a critical one. Prior to that I would engage in anti-racism work out of fear (I didn’t want people to think I was racist), out of guilt (I felt “so bad” for People of Color), or out of what is termed “White liberalism” where I was enthusiastically heading out to “save People of Color”. All three of these motivations, as I can plainly see now, were antithetical to the true ideals of racial equity because of their condescension and their lack of real understanding of how the system of racial oppression works. In unpacking this latter point and the problems with the above three motivations I came face to face with the more insidious problem of my utter ignorance regarding Whiteness and its central role in racial oppression. And it was this ignorance, expressed through “ally” work motivated by fear, guilt or white liberalism, that served to keep the many dimensions of my White privilege safely out of view (from me) and thereby firmly in tact. Only when I was willing to intellectually understand and then more wholeheartedly acknowledge to myself that effective racial equity work would involve examining my Whiteness and its relationship to racism was I able to shed the label “ally” and work more authentically toward racial justice. And this is an important move for White folks in the U.S. to make: the realization that we are deeply harmed by racial oppression (of course, not at all in the same degree as People of Color)  and cannot live freely and wholly in the world until it is dismantled. As I reflect on my own transition I can see that I have such an incredibly long way to go in my own understanding of the implications of my Whiteness, but I can say that as I continue to “lean in” to this work and to my White privilege the label “ally” is less and less fitting, and I simply choose to identify as one among many working toward racial equity.

 

To further emphasize the problematic nature of “ally”, I can say as someone who gender identifies and presents as a woman that I am always a little suspicious, and therefore cautious, around men who identify as an “ally” in the effort to end sexism. Similar to what I mentioned above, I can feel the “look at me, I’m one of the good guys” vibe from men who claim to be “allies” and it usually has me choose to not work in coalition with them around gender issues. In these moments as someone in the Target group regarding the form of oppression in question, I can see more clearly that “ally” creates a “safe distance” from which men can support women while never having to face the more complicated and painful elements of sexism; being an “ally” provides emotional insulation for Dominant members whilst appearing to be emotionally present. In its worst forms, however, “ally” language actually feeds privilege by lending itself to the “let’s take action” perspective that Dominant group members frequently jump to, often without enough knowledge to be effective, in order to not face their privilege and potential collusion. In contrast, I much prefer to work with men who can clearly see the price they pay at the hands of sexism and gender oppression and who therefore have an internal motivation for gender liberation work grounded in full humanity and liberation for us all.

 

So regardless of where one falls with respect to socially constructed identities and their relationship to power in this society, if one has Dominant identities and claims to be an “ally” to those who are targeted by forms of oppression associated with those identities, I would encourage them to look more deeply at their motivations, find the places inside where they have been damaged and compromised by that form of oppression, and approach their social justice and equity work not as an “ally” to those targeted by that oppression but instead as a co-agitator who knows that their life depends on ending oppression too…because it does.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.

The Canary In the Coal Mine (aka race-based achievement gap)

I have the privilege of working with many different school districts regarding Racial Equity (RE) issues, and when I do I always start by asking what their motivation is for doing Racial Equity work. Invariably they say “the race-based achievement gap” and their desire to close it. To that end they show me the many ways they have already directed funds, developed programs, and set ambitious goals for closing the gap and providing a “fair education for every student” regardless of their race. And while these efforts are laudable and very important as tools for closing the gap, they do not actually provide the necessary foundation for closing it and keeping it closed. That is because very few school districts understand that the race-based achievement gap is not the problem itself, it is a symptom of a much larger, older, more insidious and far more pervasive problem in education: institutional racism and white privilege. Now, for most school districts this is charged language and they are rarely willing to use it. In its place, more accessible terms like Racial Equity are put forth, and even though equity work does open the door to deeper conversations about access and resources, it is still no guarantee that district administration, teachers and staff, and families “get” that the race-based achievement gap is really just a symptomatic indicator of the legacy of racism…a canary in a coal mine.

 

Now to be clear, I am not a miner nor is anyone in my family involved in mining, so this is not something I can speak about from personal knowledge. But, as I understand it, before contemporary tools for establishing and maintaining mine safety were developed, canaries were used to determine if invisible gases were present and posing potentially fatal dangers for miners. As such, when a canary died, it was understood to be a sign that there was a serious problem in the mine and the company’s money, energy and time went into addressing the root of the problem: the deadly gas in the mine…NOT on resuscitating the canary. In a similar fashion, if we can stop seeing the race-based achievement gap as “the problem” in our schools and instead come to view it as a dying canary (the symptom that something is wrong in our schools), it follows that we would turn our attention not to the deceased canary but to that which gives rise to its demise, or in this case to institutional racism and white privilege. If the gas is dealt with, the canary lives; if institutional racism and white privilege are dealt with, the gap goes away.

 

Unfortunately, too many school districts spend their time trying to resuscitate the canary and completely miss that institutional racism and white privilege are what give rise to the race-based achievement gap. Now please do not misunderstand, I’m not at all saying that we should not put money, energy, and time into programs to support students of color and their families – those programs are absolutely necessary, but they must be done within the larger context of addressing institutional racism and white privilege. Not doing so is akin to constantly trying to revive the terminal canary. If, however, the presence of the gap is approached in a deeper way, the additional programs and supports serve as supportive transitional structures and will eventually (if the work to seriously address institutional racism and white privilege is solid and steady) not be necessary as the district moves toward achieving Racial Equity and educational access for all students.

 

I was using this general analogy in a training session the other day, and a participant continued the example this way: “So, if the canary is the gap, then the miners are the students and families affected by the gas.” That seemed reasonable to me and so I affirmed their comment. And then they continued, “But, (because of racism and white privilege) not all students and families are affected the same way…some families have no masks and no other supports and so have to take the full brunt of the gas and its affects (racism). Other families have varying degrees of masks and other protections, some to the point of being able to function perfectly well in the mine (white privilege).” And what ensued after this participant’s comment was a deep and thoughtful conversation about how white privilege in our schools is literally saving the lives of white students while the existence of institutional racism is literally poisoning and killing our students of color. By using this analogy, the impacts of race institutional racism and white privilege became just that much more clear to these folks and they could more easily see that this was not at all about “helping students of color do better on our tests”, but about something much deeper, and truly deadly if unchecked.

 

To be sure, moving to deal with the gas in the mine is a massive undertaking and is met with considerable resistance by white, middle class families who perceive this as nothing but a net loss for them and their children and therefore fight hard to maintain the status quo. In her seminal piece “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peggy McIntosh refers to white privilege as an invisible set of assets that she was actively taught not to see. Building on this, Ruth Ann Olson makes a similar list of white privileges in U.S. education. In both pieces, the privileges can be boiled down to that which makes living more possible, thriving more likely, and advantages inevitable, while its opposite are the barriers that deny equitable access, equitable opportunities, and the chance to thrive and be successful in this society. Because of the intensity of this system and the backlash of white, middle class families, many school districts are deeply afraid of wading into RE work. And yet if we remember why we are in education and connect that to our most deeply help values as a society, what other choice is there? How can we possibly say that all children in this country have equal access to education when some have the latest gas mask technology at their disposal and others have no protections in the mine at all? Clearly, this is not a question of “programs or strategies”, but rather a profoundly moral question and as such demands that the predominantly white P-12 administrators and teachers in this country have the courage to face the backlash, the commitment to address institutional racism and white privilege, and a stead-fast vision of what this society can and will become if we make education truly available for every single child. Canary saved.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.

Racial Health Care Disparities: How Do We Move Forward?

I have been practicing Pediatric Hematology in Minnesota for 20 years. For the bulk of that time I’ve had the distinct honor and privilege of caring for children with sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease is one the most common inherited genetic disorders, and is the most common abnormality detected on nationwide Newborn Screening tests. There are 100,000 Americans living with sickle cell disease. It is a disease that affects the red blood cell and has multiple complications including severe pain, stroke, lung disease, infections, and early death (http://scinfo.org/). Although sickle cell disease is a global issue that affects people of all races, in the United States patients are predominantly black.

As a white man, trained by mostly white faculty and white mentors, I never really gave this much thought. Physicians strive to provide quality health care to all of our patients and families and race shouldn’t be an issue, right? Well, then I stumbled into a workshop on White Privilege given by Heather Hackman at the Rainbow Families Conference in 2008. Only then did I begin to consider how my identity as a white male physician might affect the health care delivery to my patients of color. This consideration was long overdue and since that moment, I have been on a journey to better understand racial health care disparities and, with Heather, develop an action plan to address this inequity.

While many factors affect health care equity, disparities based on race that target communities of color are consistently reported in the management of many diseases. For example, blacks receive a lower standard of care than whites when being treated for breast cancer, orthopedic problems, cardiovascular disease, pain, and end-of-life care. According to the 2009 National Healthcare Disparities Report produced by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, many of these discrepancies are not decreasing. Blacks receive worse care than whites for half of the core measures studied, and only about 20 percent of measures of disparities in quality of care improved over the study period of 2000–2007. Being uninsured was the single strongest predictor of quality of care. However, when correcting for uninsurance and socio-economic status, blacks still eceive worse care than whites (www.ahrq.gov/qual/qrdr09.htm). At the local level, a recent Wilder Foundation study reported similar results. Blacks and Native Americans in the Twin Cities have a significantly shorter life expectancy than whites, even after correcting for socio-economic status. (“The unequal distribution of health in the Twin Cities: a study commissioned by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation,” October 2010 available at www.bcbsmnfoundation.org/objects/Publications/F9790_web%20-%20Wilder%20full%20report.pdf)

Barriers to racial health care equity include the health care system (insurance, funding, white-domination in provision of care), the patient (poor health literacy, fear, mistrust), the community (awareness, advocacy), and we the providers (bias, attitudes, stereotypes, expectations). The combined magnitude of these factors can seem overwhelming, and yet there are points of entry for each of these major variables. As providers, I believe we have the greatest potential for changing racial disparities by working on our own biases. There is much published evidence that our behavior contributes to race/ethnicity disparities in care and that patients and providers perceive race as an issue in health care delivery. Heather and I recently published some of our work in this area (http://hackmanconsultinggroup.org/wp-content/uploads/Race-Matters.pdf). So, what can we do about provider attitudes and biases?

Stay tuned…..Heather and I have developed a training module for health care providers to address race, racism and whiteness and how these affect health care delivery. We hope to present data from our initial pilot training at the 7th Annual Sickle Cell Disease Research and Educational Symposium & Annual National Sickle Cell Disease Scientific Meeting April 14-17 in Miami (http://fscdr.org/).

Similar to Heather’s blog from January 13 Racial Justice Work: A Spiritual Imperative, I strongly believe that racial justice work is also a Health Care Imperative. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Of all forms of inequity, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, Chicago- 1966 (http://www.standupforhealthcare.org/blog/martin-luther-king-jr-a-civil-rights-icon-s-thoughts-on-health-care).

 

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.