Lessons from the Boulevard

I was notified last week that my workshop on addressing climate change through a race, class and gender justice lens was accepted at a climate change conference next summer. Needless to say I am really excited about this because the conference is almost exclusively science, policy and NGO folks and so having me as a social justice educator in their midst should be an interesting experience for all of us. I went to this conference two years ago in Seattle and was deeply moved by the steadfast and optimistic commitment these scientists, international lawyers, and global relief workers showed in the face of the stark and terrifying reality that they, more than others, know in great detail – we are heading for disaster. In session after session, they inspired me to stay focused, buttress my commitment however I can, and forge ahead in an effort to educate others about what is happening regarding climate change, what we need to do, and how we need to do it (the “how” is where I and my presentation come in). And I hope that I have stayed true to the deepened commitment I made then and continue to make – I will do whatever I can to sound the alarm and educate.

 

As two tiny gestures toward that end, this spring I built a “Little Library” as a way to feed social justice / climate change books to my neighbors, and I dug up my front boulevard area in order to plant some “community gardens” for my neighbors to nibble from as they walked by. I envisioned avid readers flocking to the yard, swapping stories abut the social justice content they just read, while partaking in the beautiful food blooming perfectly and in great abundance. I imagined an evolving mix of neighbors being inspired to get into conversations about growing their own food and then somehow stumbling into amazing insights about social justice, climate change, transition towns, and sustainable communities. You see where this is going, right? Here’s what really happened.

 

The Library

The Little Library, as I suspected, did in fact attract a range of folks. I had not even finished mounting it on its stand before the two children across the street came running over saying, “Our mom wants to know if you want some kids’ books for you library.” I of course said yes since I have no children and thus my supply of kids’ books is severely limited. Within minutes they ran back over with armloads of books. It was pretty cool and lifted my spirits about the potential success of this venture. I am not the first to do this, of course, but I am the first on the block and I hope that every block in south Minneapolis will eventually be well stocked with books of all sorts. Of my personal array of books (and I hate to give away books) my first two contributions were extra copies of Black feminist thought (Patricia Hill Collins) and Come out fighting: A century of essential writing on gay and lesbian liberation. Seeing this and secretly fearing disaster, my friends contributed mysteries, classics, more kids books, and a range of lighter fare…and their books went first. In fact, I checked every day to see if my first two books were taken and it took an inordinately long time for them to disappear. I wondered aloud what this might mean and friends only proffered jokes about what I tend to read. I laughed as well, but inside I really did start to wonder what it would mean to have a Little Library solely dedicated to social justice-leaning books. Would they be taken? If not, why? Would people use their free time to read such things? If not, why? I live in a very White liberal, gender liberal, LBGTQI liberal neighborhood and I began to consider how much this might be a reflection of the troubling difference between what liberals tend to do in their free time and what they politically stand for publicly. Where is the line between liberal and progressive? I wonder about these things because I know like I know like I know that “liberalism” is no path to liberation, and so if this is where we are, then we are in some trouble when it comes to social justice issues, and by extension when it comes to climate change and climate justice.

 

I also wonder this out of a deeper concern for how we as a society are crafting our political and social lives and where the two shall meet. Liberal politics tend to be a politics of convenience and appeasement. They are a stretch for those who embody them only in the sense that their bearer might be inconvenienced and challenged here and there, but they require nothing in the way of the release of privilege and the “resorting” of one’s life from the ground up along the lines of justice. Liberal politics have an “add on” feel about them because they do not change or transform the edifice of power that creates and sustains systems of dominance and oppression, but merely seek ways to “add on” others’ rights and opportunities to the edifice itself. Case in point, I have been talking a lot lately with what I would describe as “hetero liberals” – heterosexuals who fought hard for, gave money toward, and lawn-signed endlessly for the rights of LBGT people to marry in Minnesota. Importantly, however, these heterosexual “allies” were not simultaneously examining their own privilege or the ways they themselves are hamstrung by heteronormativity and the tightness of gender norms and expectations that undergird their heterosexual lives. As such they did not make it a campaign for their freedom as well, but rather a campaign for “the freedom to marry” with nary a question about what marriage has been and currently is in this society. Now, when I would ask them about this they replied, “when LBGT people can marry, it will by default, change what marriage is.” Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it will simply mean that LBGT people are now an “add on” to the overall edifice of marriage in this society, and therefore parroting heterosexual definitions of marriage.

 

(At this point those of you who are married or who want to be married might be about to stop reading because you might think I am bashing marriage, but before you go, let me clarify: I think that there is nothing more sacred than the commitment one person makes to those they love. For some who choose not to marry, that commitment can come in the form of a deep and abiding life commitment to a community. For others who have children but are not married, that commitment can be seen in the beauty and power of parenting. Still others choose one person with whom they commit to spending the rest of their life with through turmoil and celebration. These are deeply profound and utterly gorgeous gestures that we make to others and are such beautiful aspects of who we are as humans. What I am asking the reader to lean into in the above paragraph is not the dismantling of this type of commitment, but rather a critique of the “institution of marriage”, its hugely complicated, profoundly gendered, and deeply power-based history, and how that plays out in contemporary U.S. society and its notions of marriage. Just that. So, please hang with me.)

 

All this came from watching how Oh, the places you’ll go, The poisonwood bible, and The help went whirling in and out of the library while my more political books stayed put (I added others after my first two). But that is often what liberalism does – it separates the political and personal, and in the end that simply doubles-back and serves the very same oppressive structures that liberals oppose. And so I will continue to ply my neighbors with political books in hopes that as we all place our political ideas in the community space (in this case, the sidewalk in front of my house) we can begin to see how deeply connected all of these issues are to the core of our lives and that we must live integrated and not a partitioned political lives such that we can steadily and consistently create the world we all so desperately want to live in. To be transparent, I am offering this critique to myself more than anyone else. One of the greatest gifts this Little Library has given me is the wake-up call I am alluding to – if my politics are not part of the community life here on my block, then what good are they? If they do not live and breathe and create “home” right here, then perhaps I am merely enacting liberal posturing and therefore need to take a closer look. As a step in pushing myself more, this fall and winter I plan on hosting “educational workshops” for my neighbors and friends about climate justice and what we can do with respect to it in hopes that I can create the lived politics (instead of political life) I am discussing here.

 

The Garden

As for the garden, that was an even more challenging experiment. The first and foremost problem was simply my lack of gardening skills. I placed too much in too small of spaces (I have three raised beds), the cherry tomato plant turned into perhaps the first ever sun gold cherry tomato tree, and the radishes did well at first and then there simply wasn’t enough sun for them. But, this is all fixable – I just need to become a better gardener. What accompanied the garden experiment and how to “fix” it is less clear to me. So, not only did those food justice, climate change conversations not happen (at least not to my knowledge), but my neighbors had no idea they could even take the food. Realizing this, I put small signs on the boxes saying “community gardens” but that did not seem to encourage everyone. Then I built a little box with the same sign on top and placed paper bags (like the ones you take a lunch to school in) inside it so folks would be prompted to fill one. Still, no takers. Then I went around personally to my neighbors and point blank invited (perhaps told) them to take the food. At this point, some did. And yet others, even after I helped them see what a radish looked like when it was ready to be picked, still did not partake despite their excitement and saying that they “definitely would”. Now, to be fair, my educational efforts were less than spectacular as I had also hoped to make a flyer with web sites and TED talks to view but ran out of time to make that happen. Nevertheless, it seemed like an unusual thing to tell people there’s free, fresh, organic food for the taking and to have no one really do it – to have neighbors not eat food from “my” yard. And that, I think, was the rub – property and the notion of “mine” and “yours”. As I paid closer attention to folks walking by and continued talking to neighbors about it, I began to pick up on peoples’ fear of crossing the line in terms of “property” and by extension “propriety”. After all, part of the American Dream is the possession of my house, my yard, my space and it is the “my” that I think is what kept them from seeing anything out there as “our” and more importantly from seeing this street, this neighborhood and this city as an “our”.

 

The insidious relationship between U.S. class and race structures has us drowning in endless divisions of “mine” and “yours”, and far too few of “ours”. And yet I, for one, deeply want more of the “our”. I do not want to live in a home that feels isolated and cut off from those around me. In some U.S. (and certainly many global) communities there is not this separation. In predominantly white, professional middle class communities there is. In the past I would frame this analysis within the context of race and class and the need to dismantle these structures and that would be it. Today I agree with that framing and know that we must place it in an even larger context of adaptation to the coming climate reality. Globally, the most vulnerable will feel the pain of it all first. In the U.S., a society that has “me, mine and yours” firmly tied to race, class and gender, those targeted by deeply rooted racist, classist and gender oppressive power structures will be the first to be impacted. And so I am writing here not to proffer more political framing, but rather to suggest a simple shift that might help – a shift from “mine” to “ours”. The rugged individualism so intractably associated with the race and class history of this country would have us believe that this idea is “socialism”, “weak”, will make us “vulnerable as a nation”, and will ultimately “destroy our democracy” because it is “un-American”. It would have us think that whatever we who are white and middle class, and those male, have in our possession has been earned and achieved all by ourselves (and not acquired as a result of oppression and privilege). But, if we are going to bandy about clichés, I prefer ones such as “silence is complicity”, “if not me, then who? if not now, then when?” and “no one is free when others are oppressed” because I think they are more honest. The idea of an “individual” is one that serves disconnection, which feeds fear, which is fuel for the deepening “mine” versus “yours”, which distills into “us” and “them”, which is exactly the division necessary for systems of oppression to exist. Racial, class, and gender oppressions rely on this separation, a community grounded in “ours” blurs it.

 

And so, I think my little garden experiment, in the faintest of ways, brushed up against these divisions and offered a different take on what we could be to each other and how we could live together on this block. It acknowledged the fourth wall and asked people to step through, cross lines, blur boundaries and in so doing be just the tiniest bit more of a “we”. For a more articulate and compelling conversation about this I strongly suggest you watch two TED talks (Pam Warhurst and her work in a small village in England and Ron Finley and his work in Los Angeles) that demonstrate the power of “we”. Contrary to the typical naysayers, their work is not weak, nor detrimental to human progress. Instead, they both breathe life into the notion that we are a family of people and that we do, in fact, live here together. I am taking guidance from these two “radicals” and next year will be planting even more “stuff” for the boulevard, trying to get a neighbor or two to do the same, and blurring a few more lines in an effort to build the kind of community I want and that we actually need for the coming decades of climate reality.

 

Perhaps it was a titch ambitious to hope that a library in my front yard and three small raised bed garden boxes would lead to a south Minneapolis revolution (one can hope), but it has taught me a lot. Most importantly, it has given me important information about Liberalism and the power of the possessive “mine” so that as the fall descends and winter draws near, I will spend my time inside drawing up “Season Two of the Little Library and Community Gardens Action Plan” in hopes that next year there is just a bit more connection of my politics to my life, the slightest movement form “mine” to “ours”, and a little more conversation and community. Feel free stop by. Or better yet, build some on your block.

The Courage to Teach: Part II – Racial Equity Leadership from the Heart, Body and Mind

I was leading a training on “Racial Equity and Educational Leaderhship” a few weeks ago and found myself reading several times from various works of bell hooks. I admire her so much, and in the two times I have met her, even though I rehearsed what I would say (I really wanted to sound intelligent or witty or both), I got so tongue-tied when the moment came that I sounded like a complete goof. But honestly who would not be awkward in the face of the sheer depth of her wisdom, the super nova-like power of her commitment to social justice, and the rock solid certitude she has about education as the practice of freedom. She also happens to be one of the most astute, articulate, and usefully critical thinkers of our time. And so as I was facilitating this full-day training for E-12 educational leaders I found myself reading excerpts of her work regarding the love ethic (All about love: New visions, 2001), educating from the heart (Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom, 1994), and the power of a loving community (Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope, 2003). I tried to underscore these elements as foundational to educational leadership in the 21st century, but in truth it was not my best work (I packed in too much content into too little time– a perennial struggle for me). More importantly, I did not do justice to her message regarding love, connection and community as indispensible to an educational framework that is truly liberatory. And so in this, my second installment of “the courage to teach” series, I will attempt to do what I should have done in that training – leave the “content” for another time and go as deeply as possible into a racial equity educational leadership framework that is about wholeheartedness, being fully embodied, and practicing mindfulness. The three components I outline here are not meant to “replace” other educational leadership frameworks or approaches, but rather are meant to serve as the “Leadership Lens” through which other aspects of educational leadership are executed. Said another way, if these three factors are not in place, then trying to lead a classroom, school or district around racial equity issues will always fall short for a lack of authenticity, a lack of full commitment, and a lack of awareness and understanding. Let me explain…

 

Leading from the Heart

This is not a new concept in educational leadership, and yet it is often relegated to a secondary status because it is considered too “soft”, not seen as something that can deliver good test scores, and not given validity and centrality in education because it cannot be measured, studied, and then turned into a neat new model. In my teacher education experience, theories, models and frameworks about educational leadership abound (though many are relatively vapid), and yet as each new model is adopted by those in E-12 settings, they never seem to effectively address the age-old struggles in education: gaps between those with resources and those without, gaps based on race regardless of economic factors, an over-emphasis on test scores at the expense of education that inspires, and a constantly increasing commodification of knowledge such that the privatization of education via the corporate sector is no longer a barbarian nibbling at the edge of the empire, but a full on invasion into educational best practices. These problems will not abate by the mere presence of a new educational leadership theory. These are not even the real problems. Instead they are symptoms of something larger and deeper…they are emblematic of an educational system that has lost its way. And I assert here that the path back is not more theory and more testing and more “innovations”, but rather a return to what we all know truly inspires us to learn, grow, push ourselves, support each other, and try again and again to teach and learn to the best of our abilities – I’m talking about leadership from the heart.

 

When I say “the heart” I am not referring to superficial kindness like the “Minnesota Nice” I have frequently encountered in the 13 years I have lived here. While that somewhat “non-emotional” perspective may work for a homogenous Norwegian, Swedish, German multi-generational experience, it is not well suited to the type of heartfelt connection necessary for educational leadership that can authentically address racial equity issues in education. Moreover educational leadership that is not heart-based cannot bring to bear the full complement of human emotion and connection necessary to overcome the disassociation and disconnectedness that serves Whiteness and furthers racial divisions in our society. Effective racial justice work takes not only “nice” White folks doing good work, it takes authentic, connected White people who can see the issues, and share the heartfelt conviction and commitment with Families and Students of Color (as well as committed White families) to address them. The times when I have been least effective as an educator attempting to do racial equity work had little to do with my grasp of the content and everything to do with the fact that I did not show any heartfelt connection to the issue. My lack of emotional authenticity and affective veracity led Students of Color to rightfully mistrust me and ultimately created distance between myself and those students precisely when the opposite was needed. As bell hooks, suggests, the key to real transformation in education is the re-centering of the heart, of love, and of the best of what makes us human in our educational practice. If the heart is the ultimate terrain of transformational education, then it follows that we should consider what does and does not feed it when it comes to US E-12 education. Heartfelt leadership and a commitment to relationships in an educational setting will most certainly feed an education that reconnects, inspires and supports us all in creating racially just educational spaces. To be sure this is risky business for leaders – fears about how we will be perceived, whether we will be credible, and if staffs will respond are all real. And yet, we cannot let the outdated edifice of “emotion-free” education thwart us from what we know to be right. The terrain of the heart has the capacity to nurture racial equity in ways that no other framework can and that is why Whiteness rewards sterile spaces and sees as inferior the expression of emotion. Let us instead demonstrate courageous leadership and reclaim the centrality of the heart in US education thereby giving our racial equity work the greatest possible chance for success.

 

At this point you may be thinking that this is such an obvious point that it is unremarkable and not worth blog space or the time it is taking to read it. And yet, while this may seem obvious, it is something that White dominant educational leadership spaces rarely, if ever, embrace in a way that makes dismantling structures of racial oppression possible. In a recent edition of the radio show On Being Bessel van der Klok was being interviewed about trauma and the many ways we can help people heal through it. At one point Dr. van der Klok said that Western society (read White, global northern) is the most emotionally disassociated society in human history. When we place Dr. van der Klok’s comment next to the long history of Western colonization, imperialism, genocide, and exploitation (and within that racism and whiteness) we can see that there is a relationship between these historic patterns and these emotional patterns. I am not suggesting one’s causality of the other (that is too complex of a conversation for this blog) but I am saying that there is a relationship between systems of oppression and emotional disassociation on the part of the Dominant group. And so, if being emotionally “cut off” or unavailable is connected to these oppressive histories in some way, it follows that a challenge to emotionally connect is a challenge to these oppressive dynamics and histories. In this way, heart-based educational leadership for racial equity is more than just “feel good” education, it is a radical departure from the long-standing pattern of Whiteness and Racism within education and is therefore requisite for the end of racial oppression and the beginning of racial equity. So, for every White leader in U.S. E-12 education who has a commitment to racial equity, you simply must have a commitment to leading from and through the heart.

 

Leading with the Body

If heart were all it took, however, racial equity would have been achieved in many educational settings all over the country. So many teachers and educational leaders are full of love, conviction and passion for what they do. And yet, we still struggle with issues of racial oppression in our schools. I believe this is because this heartfelt conviction is not accompanied by “the body” element. More specifically, I am suggesting that those in educational leadership need to be much more active and present in their commitments to racial equity work. I was in a workshop with Paul Kivel years ago and he asked the question, “What do you stand for?” and had us stand and share with our neighbor what issues and concerns we “stand for”. As you can imagine there was a cacophony of voices easily sharing what we all stood for as educators, community organizers, and activists. He then asked us to answer, “Who do you stand with? (apologies for grammar, but that is how he asked it). Interestingly, there was far less chatter in the room. It took folks a while to gather their thoughts about with whom they stood, or more generally, how they put their previously shared convictions into action.

 

And this is exactly what I see from so many well-intentioned White leaders in education – they really mean well, their hearts are basically in the right place, and they generally stand for racial equity in schools. But when push comes to shove they do not stand with Students and Families of Color in their classroom, school or district. In the most difficult and challenging moments, White leaders are overcome by fear and, despite their convictions, often back away from the work they are pledging to do saying things like, “our school just isn’t ready for this yet” or “we need to slow down and really think about how we are approaching this and give it a more solid attempt next year”. What is really happening, however, is that these White leaders are succumbing to the insidious tug of Whiteness and the subtle ways it scuttles their ability to truly lead around these issues. This is not solely a cognitive moment. This is about the body. This is about paying attention to the disconnect between words and actions and correcting that mismatch. The difference between White liberalism and true racial equity is mediated by a leader’s answer to these questions: “Do my commitments match my words about racial equity? And do my actions justly represent them both?” I have trained in many schools and districts over the years and in all that time the lack of deep and sustained action on the part of White leaders regarding racial equity is one of the most pernicious problems. White educational leaders must embody an educational leadership that stands with Students and Families of Color. Otherwise, their heartfelt commitment, their racially just mission statements and strategic plans, and their desires to close the race-based achievement gap will never be realized.

 

Mindful Leadership

And finally, no combination of “heart” and “body” can truly effect change along the lines of racial equity without a clear, critical and powerful mental frame – specifically mindfulness. When I was teaching at the University, and still in trainings today, I often reference Daniel Siegel’s book The Mindful Brain because it has some very useful content regarding how the practice of mindfulness impacts the capacity, chemistry, and balance of the brain and its corresponding ability to learn. Similarly, Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley’s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain supports the notion that mindfulness is really the only choice when addressing challenging and complex life circumstances because it accesses the higher order areas of the brain thereby supporting effective decision-making. And if ever there was a challenging and complex issue in education that requires effective decision-making it is the long-standing specter of racial inequity. Mindfulness supports the heart and body work mentioned above in that it helps us be fully present, more able to access the heart, and more capable of acting upon our best thinking. Mindfulness also aids our ability to think critically and clearly, to see the forest for the trees when it comes to racial equity issues, and to make decisions from our clearest and most focused perspective. More specifically, I have observed in my trainings that mindfulness reduces resistance on the part of everyday White folks and helps them maintain an openness to learn that would typically not be there or not be as accessible to them because of fear, guilt, shame, or resentment. In recent years mindfulness has taken on a more mainstream profile and as a result has been used to describe almost any practice that has one pause for a second and take a deep breath. While this is helpful, there is a difference between this and a dedicated practice regarding mindfulness, and it is the latter that I am encouraging educational leaders to undertake. Heartfelt action without mindfulness runs the risk of “White savior” and can often exacerbate racial issues more than abate them. Accordingly, the element of mindfulness makes space for our best thinking to take root and safeguards the racial justice quality of our educational work.

 

Conclusion

In summary, I want to suggest that these three aspects of educational leadership for racial equity are equally important, but should be considered in the order I present them here. As stated above, the “heart” is often relegated to the backwater of leadership conversations or is seen as the sole domain of early childhood education and not of middle or secondary education. I contend, however, that to start with the heart insures that the action and decision-making that follows will come from an authentic, connected, and deeply human place. And this is a motivation that can be trusted far more than Minnesota nice or token White liberalism. This foundation lends itself well, then, to a deeper presence and commitment to action for educational leaders that more consistently meets the needs of Students and Families of Color. And finally, a critical race lens as expressed through mindfulness practice ensures that the complexities of Race, Racism and Whiteness are addressed with the fullest breadth and depth. In closing I’ll end where I began, with a (slightly edited) quote from bell hooks, “Awakening to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination. … We do this by choosing to work with individuals we admire and respect; by committing to give our all to relationships; by embracing a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on this planet. … Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions” (hooks, 2001). And I contend that in a parallel way, leading by a love ethic – one that is heartfelt, embodied and imbued with mindfulness – can fundamentally transform U.S. E-12 education and bring about racial equity in deep and sustained ways.

 

hooks, b. (2001). All about love: New visions. New York: Perennial.

Why Being Loved by Nature Matters

[Greetings friends. This week’s blog is being written by a guest author, Erin Pratt. Every so often we will ask folks who are on the front lines of some of the key issues HCG addresses to share their thoughts, reflections, expertise, and / or hopes for the future. Erin organizes around climate justice issues and shares here her thoughts about nature, youth education and our climate future. We’d like to thank Erin for her blog contribution and for her larger body of work on this important issue. Please look in October for another guest blog from one of our favorite classroom teachers, and next week HCG blogs resume with Part II of “The Courage to Teach”. – Heather]

 

I grew up swimming in the lakes and waterways of northeast Florida.  On summer afternoons my father would point with wonder to the building cumulus clouds, noting their direction, the intensity of the lightning and how much rain they were sure to gift us with. We would listen and watch with awe as the storm made its way over our heads and on down the coast and out to sea.  We breathed in the smell of the ozone, of soaked earth and steaming pavement, and the sight of a newly scrubbed sky, bright blue, white and silver.

 

On one of these magical afternoons my brother and I held hands, our mouths full of root beer.  We were standing with our toes curled around the muscled limb of the mighty live oak that hung gracefully over Black Creek.  Crouching, we tensed, then sprang into the air, falling 12 feet into the tannic acid brown, shockingly fresh clean water.  Underwater it was almost silent, bubbles haloed around our heads.  Our floating hair was illuminated by the sun’s rays piercing the mysterious underworld. We watched each other, eyes wide, as we swallowed our fizzy root beer, delighting in how the colors and textures of our drink and the river matched. Clearly this was a summer ritual as beloved as the thunder rolling through the sky.

 

It was not so many years later, home on a break from college, that I sat at an outdoor restaurant with my family.  The ashes of live oaks from nearby forest fires fell around us. Florida was in the middle of its third year of drought.  The graceful summer thunderstorms that we could once set our clock to were now rare and sporadic.  When they did visit they were often extreme, fueling the fires instead of calming them.  Looking for solace, we headed through the forest to Black Creek. Instead of the familiar live oaks, cypress trees and palmetto plants, there was a neighborhood of newly built houses, that were ironically situated at the base of the now defunct fire tower that had once stimulated my imagination as a child.

 

It seemed that everywhere I turned I found evidence of injustice, suffering, and loss of life, all pointing to the perilous danger we are in as a planet.  And yet I could see that interwoven with this in all of life was courage, beauty, innocence, creativity and strength.  The pain I experienced was in direct proportion to the love I felt.  This was a love that came from the fertile earth of a childhood enriched with full-bodied relationships with the animate world of nature and with my human community. And out of that sense of belonging, came a conviction to act.

 

It was the apparent disconnection from nature and resulting pain many people experience that led me to become a wilderness therapist.  For I know, and have lived into, the truth that connection to nature is an important source of healing on an individual and societal level. Thankfully, the importance of nature to psychological health is not only my personal experience, but evident in a growing body of research that documents the importance of the human and nature bond including the works of David Sobel (Place Based Education) and Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle).

 

In his book Nature and the Human Soul (2007), depth psychologist Bill Plotkin describes how we can raise children, support teenagers, and ripen ourselves so we might engender a sustainable human culture.  He offers an ‘eco-centric’ model of human development as a strategy for cultural transformation, a map for moving from our violence prone and unsustainable society to one that is just, sustainable and imaginative.

 

At each stage of development Plotkin describes qualities of being and experiences that are essential to healthy human development.  These include:  wonder, enchantment, exploration, success, betrayals, discovery, skill building, belonging culturally and belonging to the more-than-human-world. Plotkin teaches how these can be nurtured in children by parents, teachers and community members.  He offers a guide for raising new generations of humans that are in touch with their own nature, each other and uniquely capable of meeting the challenges we face.

 

Based on Plotkin’s work my mother Alice Pratt, a long time educator, and I have designed a Creative Arts and Nature camp for close to 60 children grades K-8, 12 youth counselors and over 40 adults from the St. Luke Church (Minnetonka, MN) community. With the help of dozens of volunteer musicians and artists from St. Luke’s and the surrounding community, campers explore nature and their relationships with each other, their families and community. We use the mediums of story, music, Heart of the Beast style puppet and mask making, and nature-based play (picture: mud, water, animal home building with sticks, “all senses” forest walks!). Each day the children sit in councils to reflect on their experiences and practice the interpersonal skills of how to live out the three rules of camp:  1) Be Kind 2) Be Kind and 3) Be kind.

 

Bob Klanderud a Lakota Elder, is one of our most important volunteers.  Bob has a long standing relationship with St Luke.  For many years, he has brought urban native youth to the sweat lodges he built on St Luke grounds.  And he has participated in each year of the camp.

 

Nearing the end of camp, Bob came to sit with the 3rd and 4th graders in the willow lodge he constructed with the middle school group.  He had come to share his personal, spiritual and cultural wisdom with the group.  He wanted to hear about their experiences at camp, and to place them in a larger web of meaning.  When he arrived this day, it was hot.  The kids, who had just been running around covered in a camouflage of mud, grass and leaves to try and outsmart their counselors in a wild game of “kick the can”, were sweating big time

 

The lodge was in direct sunlight.  Under the burlap and willow, the temperature was soaring.  I was concerned, wondering if we needed to relocate.  But after a few minutes of re-arranging, restless twitching, and the slapping of bugs, everyone grew still.

 

Looking around the circle I saw children and their beloved youth counselors piled on each other.  Sweat was running down their arms, legs and faces.  Their feet were covered in dirt.  Their eyes were bright, faces relaxed.

 

They were giving all of their attention to the person who was telling them, in a loving voice, how utterly they belong to each other.  How they belong to the mother fox who had visited, to the hawks we saw circling overhead, to the white squirrel who lives in the old oak outside the lodge, and to this green living earth.  And in that shining, quiet moment it was clear- this was something they already knew…

 

I wonder is this belonging something you know?  Know in the sense of experiencing it?  Being loved by nature and each other led those children to lean into that moment in the willow lodge- to show up and press past what on the surface felt undesirable and uncomfortable.  We will need a similar conviction to experience the pain and discomfort that meets us when we recognize the loss we already face with respect to the coming climate realities and the need to act in bold new ways. If we are to live fully into this moment and save life on this planet, we must engender those practices that connect ourselves and our children to each other and to nature.

 

And I believe that in doing so, just as for the children, what was once uncomfortable may in fact become our experience of utter belonging.

The Woman On the Bench

Last week, as I was walking back to my office in downtown Minneapolis, I crossed the street and saw a woman on her phone, sitting alone on a bus bench. As I got closer, I noticed that she put her free hand to her forehead, lowered her head a bit, and began to cry. Perhaps she had just heard bad news, perhaps she was giving the bad news, or perhaps she simply was having a bad day. Whatever the case, as I crossed the street and moved closer toward her I could feel my concern for her rise. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the street was busy, and yet no one else seemed to notice that this woman was crying. As I reached the corner I walked past her on my right and then turned to walk just behind the bench, proceeded about 15 feet and then paused and pretended to be on my phone so I could see her without drawing too much attention to the situation. In close to a minute she was off her phone and I approached the bench, sat next to her, and asked her if she was okay and if there was anything I could do. She was surprised but could tell that I sincerely did want to know. Mind you I do not think I’m particularly special in this regard – every human heart longs to make sure that others are well. We are wired to love, we are wired to care, we are mammals and thus mend and befriend is what we do. But in this particular society, in this particular historic moment, in this particular region of the country, and in the busy downtown of a city, stopping to ask a stranger if they are okay, I mean if they are really okay, and if there is anything they need is an anomaly.

 

She very quickly recovered from her surprise, said “thank you” and proceeded to let me know that it was just some bad news about some family issues. I asked if she wanted to talk about it, she said “no, but thanks”, and I, rather awkwardly, replied with “no problem” and took my leave.

 

I share this for two reasons. The first is that this moment haunted me for hours afterward. As I walked away I looked back and wondered “but who will take care of her?” To clarify, she was not undone by her tears and seemed to have the capacity to deal with whatever the issue was, and so I am not suggesting that she needed specific care per se, but rather just care. And so I wondered throughout the day “who was caring for her?”, who was holding her hand, listening to her, letting her know that she is not alone in her pain. By virtue of being human we all have to deal with our individual trials and tribulations, but we need not ever feel as if we have to face them so utterly alone as we do in this society. In so many places around the world, the very idea of suffering alone is anathema. Connected, supportive community frameworks and modalities of social organization abound on this planet. In the U.S., however, the reality of suffering alone is part and parcel to our rugged individualism. A price is paid for our big houses, big yards, big fences, wide streets, property lines, and the like. We cut ourselves off from each other and then struggle in isolation in ways that can be utterly debilitating. The prevailing structure of this society is not conducive to deeply and skillfully answering the question of who will take care of her, of me, of us all and as a result some of our most basic human needs (companionship, nurturing and care) go unmet. And so my first reason to share this is to suggest that the price we pay for many of the structures of our society is a high and dangerous one. Dehumanizing systems of oppression not only lead to an imbalance of material safety, but they lead to an imbalance of emotional and ethical safety as well. And so on the simplest level I was struggling with wondering who would care for this woman in whatever way would best serve her well-being. But, I believe it haunted me so much because it tapped into the deeper question of who will care for all of us, for this entire society, in the face of our individual and collective pain?

 

This leads me to my second reason for sharing this story which is to suggest that any society that cannot answer the question, “who will take care of the person who is suffering” stands little chance of achieving the hoped for goals of social justice and equity work. While the old and superficial lenses of rigid identity politics would have us believe that dismantling systems of oppression is the sole goal of social justice and equity work, I believe that it is only half of the issue (and perhaps the easier half). The other half is imagining and then creating a society that can actually live as a just and equitable one. And it’s in that living that we need to be able to wisely and consistently answer the question of who will love and care for, who will listen to the troubles of, who will support the struggles of those that suffer? I’m not talking about more government or more institutions or services to carry this out. I’m talking about how I as an everyday citizen will take up this charge and live by the core values I hold and the work I have built my life around. How will the basic needs of my fellows be held as a spiritual and moral commitment of mine? And, if I cannot answer these questions, or at least be in the midst of answering them, how can I possibly ask participants in my trainings to do this? How can any of us expect it from others if we cannot do it ourselves?

 

And so I asked her what I could do. She said “nothing”. And then I walked away, feeling a little inefficacious and wondering how she was going to be cared for as she faced whatever it is she is tasked with in this life. I have no idea who that woman was and I doubt I will ever see her again, but I know one thing with absolute certainty – I must be the answer to the questions I’ve posed here. And though I imagine it will take the entirety of my days, as a result of my incredibly brief experience with this woman I am just that much more committed to simply caring for others (no exceptions) and living the deeper ethos of social justice work in everyday ways. What future is worth living if it’s not caring and just? I could have done better with this woman. I could have extended an even warmer hand and opened my heart a little more. Next time, I will.

The Courage to Teach: Part I – A Love Letter

This is an unabashed love letter to those who teach – particularly those who teach in E-12 settings. It is a job filled with joy and heartbreak, and the space between those two can turn on a dime. Teaching is glorious when it is clicking and painful and frustrating when it is not. And so to those who venture into this endeavor I want to share my appreciation for your skill, my admiration for your commitment, and my deep gratitude for all that you do for your students, their families and this society.

 

Teachers like Rachel and her colleagues in the west metro whom I have had the privilege of working closely with for a couple of years. Rachel has an amazing presence in the room, not by her stringency but by the obvious care she shows her students. They trust her, they know she wants the best for them, and they respect her. On top of this she has a clear and beautiful mastery in her content area, which makes her a nimble educator capable of skillfully responding to students’ needs and questions as they arise. All of this makes for excellent teaching, but what sets Rachel and her colleagues apart is her profound commitment to social justice issues and her desire to help each and every student learn what they need to learn not to just be successful in school, but to be able to enter this complicated and multidimensional world with confidence and an ability to understand it. She loves her job. She loves her students. She can laugh at it all and herself. She has shed many tears about it as well. She is a master teacher in the truest sense and I feel honored to have had the chance to know her and work with her.

 

Teachers like Lisa and the folks at a north metro high school. They are teachers in the truest sense because they are constantly seeking to learn and grow themselves. They have sat through trainings with me time and again (all by their own choice) and have taken it so deeply to heart that it blows me away. From one session to the next they would share with me examples of conversations with their partners, their family, their friends and how they are beginning to see equity issues everywhere and in turn act on them. They shared how they have gracefully and openheartedly (my words, not theirs…they’re too humble to say it like that) responded to students’ questions, fears, and concerns about some of the most difficult and painful issues in our society; and they do it day after day, with an unfaltering commitment to teaching the whole student and caring for the whole classroom. The work they do also embodies teaching at its best because they are exceptional stewards of education and will fight to the end for what they know to be right as educators and what they are sure is “best practice” for their students.

 

Educators like Eric and Jenny, two former classroom teachers and now administrators I have worked with in various ways. They put in enormous hours to make sure that each and every student gets their needs met. And then, after all of that, they put in even more hours to push themselves to learn more about equity issues and continue to improve their practice. They have done this so thoroughly that they can see and feel how it has shaped their lives outside of the district and how it has helped them engage more effectively and authentically with the world around them. You cannot ask for a better role model and leader in a school than someone who begins with themselves and shares that process openly and honestly with those around them.

 

All of these and the roughly 5,000 teachers I have worked with over the last 13 years here in the Upper Midwest deserve our thanks and admiration. Teaching is such an intimate and vulnerable venture. Bell hooks, in her book Teaching to Transgress, identifies so clearly how, at its best, teaching is a deeply personal act, a place where minds and hearts converge thus transforming education into an act of liberation, a testament to freedom, and a profound expression of love for humanity. Our society, with its “instant” everything and its overreliance on technology, inaccurately assumes (definitely to our detriment) that teaching can be improved with better technology, more focus on testing, and tougher performance standards. This is true if teaching is reduced to a mechanistic process whereby content is simply delivered, assessed, and built upon. But, when I ask teacher after teacher and student after student, “how many of you have had even one truly great teacher in your life?” almost everyone raises their hand. And then when I ask them to take 5 minutes to write down what made that person(s) a great teacher, it invariably is about how that teacher related to them, how they showed they cared for the students, how the teacher knew their name, how the teacher took extra time to explain some content to them, and so on. It is NEVER that the teacher had the latest technology, that the class’s test scores were high, or that the teacher was or was not tenured.

 

Teaching is an art form. It is an incredible dance between people. It is the process by which society is built and maintained. It is a sacred charge and should be treated as such. Teachers should be honored, revered, cared for (and paid better) in this society. And for anyone who thinks teachers are to blame for our society’s problems, step into a classroom for one day. Without being a true artist and having the mastery of the folks I mentioned above, you will be eaten alive…not by the students (although that can happen), but by the sheer intensity and gravity of the work you have stepped into without any preparation or skill to respond to it. I used to share with the pre-service and in-service students in my classes that a trained monkey can be an instructor, but only an artist can be a teacher. Every student is different and therefore the teacher must know how and when to use various brushes and tools, how to mix colors just so, and how to use just the right brush strokes for each and every person in that room. In more conventional terms, good teachers know how to attend to the intellectual, emotional, and psycho-social needs of students while they are teaching math. You see, it truly is an art form.

 

To be honest, however, this is not a blanket defense of all teachers. I have encountered many teachers who should not be in the classroom for various reasons. I have counseled pre-service folks out of the profession whom I could see had no passion or interest in the field and who by their own admission simply wanted a job with summers off. And, I have encountered teachers who used to love what they did and were passionate about it, but because of a lack of support their fire burned out (or, was allowed to burn out). And so this is not a romanticized soliloquy about how all teachers are perfect. Instead this is a clear and heartfelt love letter to those who are themselves in love with teaching and express that love so masterfully. We need you. We will not be able to navigate the future challenges without the foundations you are laying in the hearts and minds of the young people who pass through your doors. So, thank you for your commitment and passion. Thank you for your kindness and care for our children. Thank you for consistently going well beyond your job description and the hours you get paid for. Thank you for taking the charge of educating generation after generation of young people so seriously and so to heart. Thank you for your skill and brilliance in the classroom. Each and every day you help our society dwell in the hope and possibility of a better tomorrow through your teaching of our children. We owe you more than we can ever possibly give.

What Is Your Anchor for the Coming Storm?

Last week I was walking with a friend, we’ll call her Ange, on a blistering hot day. Not only was it toasty temperature-wise, but there was a relentlessly hot wind and a level of humidity that made the “feels like” temp significantly higher than the thermometer read. Ange is a long-time activist in the climate justice movement and one of the local leaders in that work, and we both commented, rather obviously, that this is the new normal.

 

Always interested in the experience of those doing climate justice work, I asked Ange what she tells folks when she does trainings, speaks, or generally stands in front of crowds talking about climate change. How much reality does she share? What information does she offer? How does she help people handle the content she educates them on? Her response was that she often does not lay bare the cold, hard facts in one fell swoop – that would be too paralyzing and no one would be able to move let alone get motivated to take any action. Instead, she takes the temperature of the group and offers up what she thinks they are able to digest at that particular moment and what fits within their sphere of influence and action. This approach, echoed by many other climate educators and activists, comes out of years of doing this work and knowing all too well what motivates or what paralyzes everyday folks regarding climate change. And yet, it has always left me wondering how we can possibly move forward without the facts being brought to the fore. How will anyone know that this is a climate “emergency” instead of just climate “change” if they do not have access to the mountains of data that shed light on the future unfolding before us?

 

As I shared my concerns with Ange, our conversation moved from “what to share with folks we’re trying to educate” to talking about the deep (spiritual or otherwise) anchors that afford folks the strength to hear it. And that, of course, ended up being the “answer” to my questions: before sharing the hard content you must nurture peoples’ deep anchor(s) because a person’s ability to hear the climate reality and still take action is directly proportional to the depth, resilience, and power of the deep anchors in their life. This basic concept is born out in all manner of psychological research, one example being trauma research, where the depth, breadth and quality of support around a person experiencing trauma has a direct impact on their ability to heal (or not) that trauma. And so, before wading into the stats or reports or headlines about climate change it is important to address the deeper questions that this climate emergency is calling up within each of us: what can I anchor to that will bend but never break in a storm as ferocious as the one that is coming? What is it inside of me that will allow me to see the painful or terrifying truth and not be unmoored? What can possibly be substantial enough to buoy me as some of the central elements of our society shift (by necessity) to accommodate the new climate reality in the years to come?

 

At this point, let me digress a moment to better get at the above questions…I was watching a PBS special this past April on the Titanic, and while most of the information was not new, one piece stood out to me: the men in the engine room could have gotten out (or at least attempted to) had they left once they realized the severity of the situation. Given their proximity to the gash in the hull, they knew (perhaps better and sooner than most) the grave nature of the damage. And yet, they also knew that if they did leave, the ship would be without power and without power there would be no lights for the passengers to find their way to the lifeboats. And so, according to this historical account, some of those men made the decision to stay in a situation that would surely bring about their death in order to provide as much of an opportunity as possible for others to live. And that was the bit that struck me – there are many accounts of one person giving up a seat in a lifeboat for another during that disaster, but those acts had an obvious outcome: Person A surrendered their seat to Person B who then got on the life boat and was shuttled away from the danger. What the engine room men did had no such obvious outcome. They gave their lives in hopes that others might have a better chance to survive. Looking Person B in the eye as they are lowered into the lifeboat gives Person A an immediate, concrete sense of the humanity that comes from altruism. But what was it that had those men give up their lives for just a chance that others might survive? What anchor did they reach to in order to make such a decision for people they would never see and who might never even know of the sacrifice they made? Whatever that anchor was, I believe it is the same type of mooring necessary for us to proceed in the face of the facts regarding climate change: we need the courage to make drastic changes right now with the hope that those who follow us might have a better chance of surviving it.

 

A society suckled on immediate gratification to the point that instant messaging, fast food and overnight shipping are no longer fast enough is in a difficult position to be able to pay the costs now in hopes that it might give future generations a better chance. And yet, that is exactly what we must do, and thus the need for an “engine room” type of anchor. Thankfully there are resources out there suggesting how to craft a vision of the future that is “out of the box”, that has hope woven into its core, and that is pragmatic and courageous enough to stare reality in the face. Joanna Macy’s recent book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy, coauthored by Chris Johnstone, lays a solid general foundation about the effects of Business As Usual, the Great Unraveling, and the Work That Reconnects in order to help the reader be able to weather the coming transition for life on this planet. For years Joanna Macy has helped thousands of people in her workshops and educational experiences face their pain for the world and find the courage and presence of heart and mind to steadfastly hold a vision for a better tomorrow. She also has a DVD set based on one of her workshops and still offers workshops and trainings throughout the US and abroad. Another solid resource is A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, which offers a range of teachings that give a deep-time perspective and grounding as one steps into the complex dynamism of this current climate moment. Similarly, the work of Winona LaDuke helps foreground a non-linear, non-materialistic, non-consumptionist worldview that serves as an essential foundation for facing climate change in a healthy and sustainable manner. All of these sources offer eyes-wide-open responses to the climate reality that are imbued with the compassion, wisdom and interconnectedness proportionate to the nature of the problem. In short, they offer deep anchors.

 

Ironically, the comparison to the Titanic is apt, if on a global scale. There are small island states (at the COP conferences they are represented by the OASIS coalition and I recommend you explore the OASIS press conferences from COP 18) that are “sinking” because sea levels are rising. Wealthy nations can throw a life preserver to them if we choose to do so. It is too late to save the islands themselves from being consumed by the sea because too much climate change is in motion. But, we can save the people if the rest of the global community has the will, via their deep anchors, to do so. And, in case the wealthy nations feel we are immune, let us not forget that we are all on the same ship and as the water levels rise, they will eventually reach us all. No one is immune. There is no other ship but this one. And so how will we be remembered several generations hence? Will they see us as a people who, when we could see the situation for what it was, dug deep, evolved and acted as one human family? Or, will they see us overcome by our fear-based instincts? The determining factor, I believe, is what we anchor to as we navigate the storm. And so I leave you with the same questions I am leaning into myself: What will sustain you as deeply and profoundly as this climate moment will surely challenge you? What will give you and yours the presence of heart and mind to navigate this new “Eaarth” (McKibben) with grace and compassion? What gives you realistic hope for the future? In short, what is your anchor?

Moral Mondays

I was not raised a Christian and most likely will not identify as such in my life. I do, however, have a deep appreciation for the monotheisms and the key prophets and voices from each, particularly as they discuss social justice issues. Karen Armstrong’s work on the monotheisms in general and Christianity in particular, along with the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong and some of the writings of Jim Wallis have helped me understand more clearly the deeply rooted social justice nature of Jesus’s teachings and Christianity as a whole. As I listen to and read reports about the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina, I am again moved by the power of Christianity as a transformative force toward social justice. And while there has developed a fairly wide range of issues being protested each Monday since March, the general theme (what Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP and primary organizer of Moral Mondays, calls “a new Southern Strategy”) expressed by these multi-racial, multi-class, multi-denominational protestors seems to be a call for a state government that cares for its most vulnerable citizens and that safeguards the rights of those most marginalized.

The interfaith character of these protests suggests that across all denominations there is a shared message of ending poverty and helping those who are in need. To me this is incredibly heartening. Since the late 1970s the gap between the “have’s” and the “have not’s” has increased to absurd proportions and if history is any guide, this trend is a sure-fire recipe for internal collapse. A society cannot stay cohesive and healthy when so few control so much at the expense of so many. I was in Rome five years ago and while talking to an archaeologist who also worked as a tour guide (she said archeologists are a dime a dozen in Rome and so they all had to have one to two other jobs) I asked her why Rome fell. I had learned in school it was the “barbarians” nibbling at the Roman borders combined with internal political and religious strife that caused the fall of the Roman empire. She shook her head and said, “No, Rome fell because the gap between those who had and those who didn’t became too large and the needs of the many were eclipsed by the myopic avarice of the few. And, when the largest component of society is so weakened, and the smallest component is so bloated and out of touch, any society (indeed every society) will fall by its own hand.” Mind you she did not say money or wealth was bad, she was saying that blinding hubris combined with absurd excess leads to an imbalanced society that has no choice but to self-destruct.

 

And so the Moral Mondays, to me, are more than just North Carolinians protesting a handful of policies, they are more than just some people of faith speaking out against a perceived injustice, to me they are a calling of conscious that has been heard again and again in this and other countries when the basic needs of people are not being met, and more specifically when the needs of the many are eclipsed by the needs of the elite few. Again, I’m not a Christian (nor a North Carolinian for that matter), but I can completely get behind a movement that is rooted in deep principles of faith and willing to lay it all on the line to end class oppression and racial oppression in North Carolina (and in our society as whole). And as I have said, while a bevy of other groups have joined in and tagged on to the overall agenda, it has not escaped anyone that a very large number of North Carolinian people of faith have come together to say enough.

 

This country has a long history of class and race oppression. When the British began colonizing this portion of North America they brought with them two essential frameworks for their possession and use of power against “others”; the first was Christian hegemony whereby if you were not Christian you were not seen as “civilized” or truly “human”; the second was a long-standing class hierarchy so entrenched that it was simply understood that one was born, lived in, and died in their divinely ordered class. There was no “boostraps” myth and no Horatio Alger stories flooding the popular imagination yet. Instead, class was intractable, essentialized in the body, and meant to express one’s humanity and value in the world. Once the British realized these two frameworks of power were insufficient to control the various peoples in the North American colonies, they had to create another framework to buttress their colonial power: race. The creation of race, to first separate those who would oppose the British and later to explain away the contradiction of the birth of a democracy and the institutions of genocide and slavery, was and still is a powerful dividing line in US society. The result of this weaving together of race, class and Christian hegemony was the propping up of the power of white, Christian, land-holding men. And, whenever this was threatened one of the most convenient strategies was to pit poor and working class white men against poor and working class people of color (by the dominant power structure “playing its race card”) thereby using racial allegiance as a way to stamp out white working class frustration about their economic conditions. And whenever an alliance between poor and working class people of all races was able to overcome this pitting of people against each other, Christian hegemony was used to divide the “humans” from the “savages” and once again establish the power in the hands of the white, land-holding, Christian men.

 

Reverend Barber knows this history well, I’m sure, and so his and other religions leaders’ intention to not allow these age-old wedges to be driven into this movement is very powerful. Proactively reaching across lines of race and class and denomination is an extremely wise approach and will hopefully lead to a North Carolina that is not only committed to economic and racial justice, but whose Christianity is one that cares for the poor and vulnerable and opposes countless cuts to state government that hurt the poor and benefit the wealthy. I am in support of the separation of church and state and so would not want a Christian doctrine as the moral compass for this society. But, values of love, compassion, humility, wisdom, and caring for the most vulnerable and marginalized through the lens of equality and equity instead of charity and paternalism (sic) is a society I would be proud to claim and be an active citizen in. If a loving, humble, reflective and socially just Christianity is the lens through which some of my fellow citizens work to bring about such a society, wonderful.

 

In no small way it would literally be a miracle if the movement created by Moral Mondays could reclaim the loving, just and progressive territory Christianity can rightfully claim. As a non-Christian looking from the outside in it has always been difficult for me to understand how a religion rooted in love could have such a long list of people, groups, and ways of being in the world it hated. The Buddha rightly said 2500 years ago that hatred can never be stopped by hatred; it is only with love that hatred can cease. It seems to me that Christianity is rife with opportunities for this love to be expressed and I truly welcome the voices of the many people of faith in North Carolina and may the echo of their commitment for social justice carry across this entire country.

Addressing Shame As White Racial Justice Advocates

A couple of weeks ago I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly (2012 Gotham Books) and while there are several valuable points to be found in her work on shame, vulnerability, and resilience, there was one set of ideas in the book that had significant resonance with what I watch white people struggle with when addressing their internal responses to issues of race, racism and whiteness. But before I expound on them I want to be very clear that I am merely adding my own thoughts onto Dr. Brown’s work and I want to give full attribution to her, her research, and the voice she brings to an important and complicated conversation about shame, vulnerability, and resilience. As such, I ask that you honor the copyright agreements for these blog postings so that her work does not somehow get lost in any re-postings.

 

In my experience the resistance white people tend to put up around addressing issues of race, racism and whiteness is described variously as white peoples’ fear, guilt, shame, the preservation of their privilege, a manifestation of white entitlement, conflict avoidance, or simply ignorance. And while guilt and shame do often get mentioned, the conversation is more likely to be about the ways that white people “feel so bad” about what has happened to people of color, and as a corollary, how white people feel attacked or blamed by people of color for the current racial reality in the US. In her book, however, Dr. Brown differentiates guilt from shame and identifies the deep, corrosive nature of shame as opposed to guilt: guilt is “I feel bad for what I did”, shame could be described as “I feel bad for who I am”. And, in the case of white people’s resistance to race, racism and whiteness content, while both guilt and shame are operating, it is the latter dynamic which feeds the most substantial resistance. In her research Dr. Brown has identified many of the overt and covert facets of shame and how it immobilizes people, disconnects us from others and ourselves, and makes it nearly impossible to be open-minded let alone open-hearted…all conditions that freeze white people, stop racial equity from happening in their midst, and ultimately keep systems of racial oppression in place.

 

Her intent, however, is not merely to explicate the ways shame trips all of us up in our lives, it is to offer a countervailing idea she describes as “shame resilience”. Now, remembering that she is not specifically addressing social justice issues (and certainly not racial justice issues), here is what she says about shame resilience. I encourage you to make your own connections to racial justice work and the ways white folks can work through the trap of shame. “…I want to explain what I mean by shame resilience. I mean the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy – the real antidote to shame” (p.74).

 

Again, though Dr. Brown is not specifically applying this content to social justice issues, it should be clear to anyone that this definition, and the disposition toward racial equity work that would arise out of it, are powerful elements in creating a racially just society. In this frame of mind, the privilege and benefits whites get at the expense of people of color is obviously anathema to achieving our fullest humanity. White privilege then becomes something not worth defending if its price is endless shame and our inability to connect to other human beings in empathy, compassion and care.

 

After defining shame resilience, she goes on to say that, “A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm…to get to empathy, we have to first know what we’re dealing with. Here are the four elements of shame resilience – the steps don’t always happen in this order, but they always ultimately lead us to empathy and healing” (p.75).

1. Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers

2. Practicing critical awareness

3. Reaching out

4. Speaking shame

 

In the pages that follow she goes into great detail regarding the application of these four elements in a person’s life. Here I want to tweek them a bit and talk about their utility in helping white people move through places of “stuckness” around their white privilege and racism in the service of racial justice and healing.

 

Recognizing (white) shame and understanding its triggers

There is a solid body of research looking at “triggers” as a general category of patterned response born out of our socialization. More specifically, however, there are some very general ways that white people in the US tend to get triggered around racial issues. Here are four (among many) that I encounter when doing racial justice training and education:

– Feeling attacked and blamed

– Feeling ignorant and unsure of what is true and not true

– Feeling scared to act for fear of making a mistake

– Feeling afraid that life will change in ways that they simply do not understand and might not like

 

In any of these moments white folks in my trainings will respond with varying degrees of defensiveness and anger. If this is something you have witnessed in yourself as a white person or seen white people do, it would be useful to stop and breathe and then ask some questions about what might be triggering you / them in that moment. Remembering that Dr. Brown suggests that empathy is the balm, this questioning should not reinforce shame through its tone or expected outcome. Rather an open-hearted inquiry is sometimes all it takes to get to deeper levels of honesty and a more responsive and reflective conversation.

 

Practicing critical awareness (regarding whiteness)

Dr. Brown suggests that this tool is about reality-checking the messages that are driving one’s shame. This is hard for white folks with respect to racial equity issues because we have been so badly and inaccurately educated about race, racism and whiteness in the US that we often do not have a place from which to differentiate true from false as we begin to learn more about these issues. One of the tools I offer in trainings is the notion of “critical thinking” and I have distilled that complex notion into three accessible ideas as a starting point for folks. In short, practicing critical awareness via critical thinking involves: 1) examining issues from multiple, non-dominant perspectives, 2) asking questions about resources, access, and power, and 3) asking myself how do I know what I think I know; have I been given all of the facts or do I just “think” I have?

 

Using these three questions when practicing critical awareness around white shame can help me as a white person to realize that a) I was, in fact, badly educated (which is not my fault), b) that I had never thought about access issues in relation to race before (again, how could I have if it was never modeled for me), and c) that I’m not really sure “where” I got all of my ideas about race from (and so perhaps they are not actually accurate or true). As you can see these questions afford me a little distance as a white person, which is quite helpful when looking at my part in racial issues in this society. As Peggy McIntosh says in the video Cracking the Codes, (I’m paraphrasing) “white people were born into a system they do not understand and were socialized to go along with; it’s not their fault, and they should not feel guilty but instead get busy.”

 

Reaching out (to other white RJ allies)

White privilege, and the ignorance, disconnection, fear and pain that support it, thrives in isolation. In fact, I imagine all dynamics that corrode connection and community thrive in isolation. As such, reaching out to other white people to ask questions, share concerns, and learn how to grow and work through racial justice issues is paramount. A caveat here is that the white person I reach to should be someone who is committed to racial justice issues, understands that shame is a horrible trap for white people, and who has a bit more knowledge than I. Without these elements, one is likely to stay stuck, or even exacerbate the shame of whiteness. Again, this is about connecting and being human and vulnerable with each other as we try to bring on line the elements of our values, hopes and dreams that have been silenced by systems of racial oppression and the impact they have had on our connections as white people.

 

Speaking shame (about being white)

When white people get caught in a shame spiral you can literally see them “leaving” the workshop. All of the defense mechanisms come up, their eyes close off a bit, their energy gets hard, and their faces steel somewhat. But, when I have watched white people name the shame, open up on a deeper level, the talons of fear do not seem to grip them and they can stay present (at least somewhat, anyway) in the training and basically “hang in there” with their discomfort. What it tends to do for people of color in the room, when the naming is done honestly, is make the training feel a little more authentic as a process and therefore a little safer to stay in the conversation. Importantly, this process of speaking the shame is not about white people becoming the victim of racial oppression through testimonials of how hard it is to be white at the exclusion of the pain people of color feel. Instead, there is a bit of distance here, relief against the sky if you will, where white people can see the shame arise, know that it is an impediment, and share about it from a desire to address the impediment rather than feeding the notion of how hard it is to be white. It may seem like I am splitting hairs here, but the distinction matters because it shapes the contours of the conversation and determines the level of wisdom, compassion and authenticity being brought to the table.

 

To be sure there are no “magic bullets” when it comes to addressing the barrier of shame felt by white people with respect to racial equity work. But, Dr. Brown’s shame resilience framework, when applied to racial equity work, can perhaps provide white folks some tools to get through those moments, stay connected to others in the room, and ultimately stay grounded enough to keep working toward racial justice in our lives, in our communities, and in this society as a whole.

SCOTUS, What Have You Done?

There has already been so much said about this in progressive circles that this will be brief. Nevertheless, it feels important to add another voice to the overall commentary about the two Supreme Court decisions of last week. Heartbreaking is the word that comes to mind as I ponder the inevitable racist consequences for people of color in this country as a result of the ruling on the Voting Rights Act. Infuriating, inconceivable, and outrageous are a few other words that come to mind. Justice Ginsberg, in her dissent, aptly noted that just because someone is not getting wet, does not mean you take away the umbrella that has for 48 years attempted to keep them dry. If the Supreme Court believes that “things have changed in this country” they only need to look at the immediate and substantial legislative and executive branch responses from the states previously covered under the Voting Rights Act. The pernicious nature of the disenfranchisement of people of color in this country is obvious to anyone thoughtful enough to read history and then watch the six major news networks…the comparison between the “then” and now is shocking – not much (if anything) has changed. For example, the Texas redistricting measures that were clearly identified as intentionally biased in favor of whites prior to the Court’s ruling, are now able to proceed and the further gerrymandering of votes away from communities of color and toward white state and federal legislators will continue. How the Court does not see this might well reflect the depth and breadth of the impact of whiteness on their minds and how it has limited their ability to see past the pseudo-post-racial US propaganda and instead recognize that racism and white privilege are alive and well in these United States. There is no question that this was a blow to communities of color in this country and as such it is critical that we not let it go unchallenged: a) step up the dialogue with those in our lives about the realities for people of color in the US and the extent of disenfranchisement still in place, b) redouble our efforts to get fair and equal access to the vote in all 50 states (pressure our leaders), and c) do every single thing we can to get folks to the polls in 2014 and 2016.

 

But the Court did not stop there, and this is the crux of why I’m writing this blog, the very next day they handed down a ruling that essentially invalidated DOMA and Prop 8 in California. Thus in the sweep of 24 hours people of color lost considerable (and perhaps the only) protections against one of the most basic and sacred rights in a democracy while LBGTQI folks gained access to one of the most powerful state-sanctioned institutions and all of the economic, social, and political benefits that arise from it. It was an incredible moment for LBGTQI people all over this country for as Justice Scalia prophesied (in his dissent) this set of rulings will most likely pave the way for LBGTQI folks throughout the US to have fair and equal access to the benefits of federally recognized marriage.

 

And yet, it was a bittersweet victory due to the ruling the day before. What I would have loved to have seen amidst the endless media coverage and interviews of white LBGTQI people was both a cheer for the equality of LBGTQI people and a stronger statement regarding the loss of rights for people of color. No one is free when others are oppressed. It is not lost on anyone that the plaintiffs regarding DOMA and Prop 8 were white people. And, it is also not lost on anyone that the primary beneficiaries of the legalizing of LBGTQI marriage are white people. Certainly there are ways that LBGTQI communities of color are served by this ruling and I’m not dismissing that, but overwhelmingly across the country the securing of LBGTQI marriage rights has largely been politicized, presented, and organized by and for white people.

 

I am going to assume that the court did not intend to create a dynamic where one group lost civil rights while another gained them the very next day, and yet intent matters little when the effects are so potentially polarizing. It would be all too easy for the dominant power structure to insidiously use these rulings as bait and fodder for division and derision among LBGTQI folks and folks of color (understanding that the dominant power structure does not even acknowledge people of color who are LBGTQI), and that simply cannot happen. The mainstream LBGTQI community in the US has fallen short countless times around issues of racial justice, as have various mainstream communities of color around LBGQI rights. Let us use this moment as a means to remember this history, see its poisonous implications for future organizing, and make a different choice. Thus, to the LBGTQI political, non-profit, community and educational leaders across the country, who also are often majority white, I implore you to acknowledge the travesty that happened to the Voting Rights Act and take a strong and immediate stand against the racism and white privilege that fuels rulings such as this and the overall disenfranchisement of people of color across the country. And to mainstream leaders of color across the country, I ask you to celebrate the Court’s ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 and honor it as one more step to full equality for LBGTQI folks throughout the country. Let us all remember that we crave justice and equality not for ourselves only, for that diminishes the very heart and corrodes the very spirit of “justice” and “equality”, but for the greater good and in the service of a society where all humans are free and equal and safe.

 

In closing, I am indeed celebrating one more step toward equality for LBGTQI people in this country and simultaneously beseech all of us who care about racial justice to use the momentum of this victory to not only fuel continued LBGTQI civil rights work, but also to fuel racial justice work and insure that the rights, safety and security of people of color in this country are achieved and secured for this and future generations.

 

A Global Epidemic

This past week the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) released a chilling report stating that, globally, 1 out of 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence. To be exact, 35.6% of all women around the world will experience some form of sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. The data comes from a meta analysis of 141 studies from 81 countries and is the most comprehensive study to date about violence against women globally. It is significant that the World Health Organization released this report because they frame it, of course, as a health risk and have appropriately identified this as an epidemic. More specifically, they indirectly highlight the relative global apathy around this issue by suggesting that if these numbers (35.6% of 52% of the world’s population) were about any other disease, there would be an international outcry and immediate action. To be sure, less than a dozen deaths from avian bird flu have been enough to send the world health community (and world community in general) into a state of high alert.

 

So why then is there so little response from world, national, regional and local leaders about this epidemic? Some answers can be found in the way the issue is framed, as Jackson Katz succinctly explains in his TEDx FiDiWomen talk where he suggests that calling this solely a “women’s issue” serves to place the sole responsibility for its solution on women. He contends that while women should of course be seen as leaders in this arena and that women’s efforts to end violence against women have been remarkable given the statistics, violence against women is absolutely a men’s issue and men must step up and take more leadership. Katz goes on to illustrate this by showing how the framing of this issue from “John beat Mary” to “Mary was beaten by John” to “Mary was beaten” to “Mary is a battered woman” completely takes the batterer, John, out of the picture and places the sole focus on “Mary” as both the site of the problem and the source of the solution. I notice this as well on college campuses where following a sexual assault the campus police will put up notices on all building doors alerting the community as to the general details of what happened and then offer a bulleted list of steps women can take to protect themselves from sexual assault. Incredibly, this list has never, ever included a simple suggestion that men actually stop assaulting and battering women followed by a bullet list of things men can do to bring an end to violence against women. As such, I applaud Jackson Katz’s years and years of effort to educate other men about violence against women (and girls and trans* folks) and how to end it.

 

Having said that, I think we are missing something significant if we do not simultaneously look at what it is in our global community that leads so many men to enact violence of one form or another against women. And before I go any further I want to disabuse the reader of any notion that “it’s testosterone”. Certainly the biochemical nature of our bodies can suggest certain ebbs and flows of emotional presence and dispositions at times, and yet to presume that men are overcome by their testosterone-based urges to the point of enacting violence against over one-third of half of the world’s population reduces men to knuckle-dragging sacks of hormones and is a naïve retreat into biological essentialism that is both insulting to men and dangerous to women Thankfully, this biologically essentialist rationale has been consistently debunked by sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. And so if we cannot reduce the epidemic level of men’s violence against women to some form of biological root, it follows that there must be a sociological source to this violence. Given that the W.H.O. study is global, the drivers for these phenomenological, societal dynamics are many and varied: in some instances the ideological supports of women’s subordination is grounded in religious or spiritual beliefs, in other instances it is tied to a perceived economic order in which women’s role is to “reproduce” and men’s is to “produce”, in still other circumstances it has connections to something akin to a pseudo-social-Darwinism where men are superior because they are believed to be physically stronger and therefore that rightful order must be maintained, and in still other locales it has to do with more modernistic notions of dominance and patriarchy (rooted in Western colonization, for example) and the associated creation and maintenance of systems of privilege for men. Whatever the case, it should be clear that the W.H.O. study speaks to something much deeper, more insidious, and more difficult to transform than merely educating men about violence against women, girls and trans people. It requires an interrogation into the very foundations of gender and the construction of male dominance, privilege and norming of violence against women, girls (and boys) in multiple societies around the world. Without this type of deep focus, education about ending violence against women will not be sufficient in its depth and weight to overcome the more deeply rooted sources of the cycle of violence from past generations and the passing of those beliefs and behaviors to future generations. Please do not misunderstand, I absolutely think that attention to ending violence against women, girls and trans folks must happen and it needs to happen right now, and therefore the work of women’s groups, trans activists, and raised-male educators like Jackson Katz is incredibly valuable – we must stop the hemorrhaging immediately. However, we must also look to the source of the hemorrhaging and that requires a more intimate, honest and deep examination of the values, beliefs, and everyday practices regarding gender, gender role socialization, and the very notion of what it means to have a gender identity.

 

To do this, let me offer some basic starting points I believe are necessary within the context of the US. I am limiting my suggestions to a US context because it is the only one I am intimately familiar with and I do not want to fall into the trap of US exceptionalism by commenting on other communities around the world without a true and deep knowledge of those communities. In general, I think there are three areas of focus that will help us begin the process of getting to the roots of this issue and creating transformation in our society, in our institutions (education, healthcare, business, service sector, legal system, etc.), and in our own lives. The first is to question what is gender in the first place, the second is to look at the effects of a rigidly constructed set of gender roles and rules, and the third is to begin to envision a society that is ever-more working toward and embodying gender liberation. Those of you who are gender scholars or activists might find this list too limiting and perhaps even naïve, while those of you in some of the mainstream sectors mentioned just above might find these points too radical. As such, I encourage you to use your mastery in your given context to consider how you can lean in to each of these areas and extend the conversation as deeply, broadly and complexly as possible.

 

More specifically, I am suggesting that we all begin by interrogating “what is gender?” If you are an HR manager and have no idea how to start this, try asking “what are some of the assumptions, expectations, and even stereotypes connected to gender in my organization?” From there, begin to look at the impacts of those items on the culture and climate of your workplace, your organization’s efficacy, and the ability for each of your employees to maximize their potential. From here ask what steps can be taken to make the culture and climate of your workplace less reinforcing of these gender roles and rules and instead more open to the full human experience of everyone at the company. What education and training is necessary, what policy changes are necessary, what shifts in how meetings are run are necessary and so on. Again, this is for an organization that is on the beginning cusp of examining gender issues.

 

Similarly, if you are working in an E-12 setting, you can also identify what the typical gender role expectations are and then rigorously examine how the content, process, and overall pedagogical approach of your building or district either reinforces these limiting gender dynamics or supports their transformation. Be honest with yourselves about the devastating impacts of gender violence on ALL of your students (again, Jackson Katz suggests that while men commit an unbelievable amount of violence against women, most of the targets of male violence in the US are other men) and how imperative gender liberation and transformation are for your school or district. How much human capital are we losing in this society because we steep our young people in gender traps that limit their full human capacity? And, when answering this, dig deeply into the reality of how your school or district plays into or challenges this societal loss.

 

Those of you in higher education will most likely want to examine how your campus is responding to violence against women, girls and trans folks, If you are doing so in a “male liberal” manner you are most likely obfuscating the ways gender roles and gender socialization keep sexism and gender oppression (and the violence that goes along with it) in tact. I reference again the “sexual assault alert” from above and suggest that college campuses do a much better job of interrogating and deconstructing gender as a binary, and re-construct gender in ways that are rooted in liberation, equity and holistic identity development for all students, staff and faculty.

 

As you can see for the small sampling of contexts here, wherever you are starting this conversation, it is vital that you do so, and do so right now. As the W.H.O.’s report suggests this is not a new issue (obviously, if 81 countries have conducted 141 studies) and yet it is at epidemic proportions. A new urgency and a deeper focus are required if we are to respond in a way that says “this will end with me…this generation will be the last to be socialized into a world where 1.3 billion women experience physical and sexual violence.” And while the scale is large, the actions of each and every one of us deeply matters and I encourage you to engage as consistently and vocally as possible for the future of all of us.

 

*Note: The usage of the term “trans” here refers to the full complement of gender non-conforming identities, as well as communities who identify as transgender, transsexual, and gender queer.