The Water We Swim

One of the few places where people of different races and ages gather to converse about difficult topics is Kheprw Institute. In the atrium where public meetings take place under smudged skylights, we circle folding chairs and introduce ourselves.

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We’re discussing How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. An eye-opening book for those of us privileged enough not to be affected (so far) by gentrification.

A quote from the book:

“The ignorance of the lives of others is what allows gentrification to happen. … If you ignore the destruction of the lives of the people who’s always mattered the least, things are going great. If you acknowledge that their lives exist and that they matter, then it becomes immediately obvious something is terribly wrong. So what does it mean that we are not only ignoring these people but increasingly erasing their narratives in the name of progress?”

—Peter Moskowitz

To open the discussion, we listen to an interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, as he lays out the most egregious historic housing policies that sidelined African-Americans. Three things stand out in this brief clip:

1) When public housing was initiated in the mid-20th century, integrated neighborhoods were destroyed to make room for segregated spaces. 2) Meanwhile the federal government subsidized suburb development on the condition of these neighborhoods being open to whites-only. 3) Then black neighborhoods were rezoned to allow toxic and industrial uses, so that African-Americans were living next to waste disposal and industrial facilities.

Stories like these, and books like How to Kill a City, make it harder for white Americans like me to ignore something that we never consider: Our comfort, our security, our privilege, our inherited wealth—is built on a rigged game, on money stolen, housing denied, opportunities refused.

***

In junior high Language Arts class I wrote a paper for a unit on Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. I remember including a sentence like: “It’s amazing to think about how well we’ve put racism behind us.” My teacher, who was African-American, put a ^ next to the sentence and wrote in something like “and it’s sad to think about how much racism remains.”

I remember feeling shocked, even a little offended, at my teacher’s insertion, in her authoritative red-penned handwriting. What racism? I tried to think what she might be talking about. But when I looked around, I didn’t see any “Whites only” signs or German shepherds barking meanly at protestors like in the films we were shown. Could she be exaggerating?

That should have been my first inkling that my reality as a white person differed from the African-American reality in fundamental ways. That I might be swimming in water and never even feel it—but they did.

Several years later, a Goshen College classmate from Africa spoke of her hurt when a library clerk rudely flung coins onto the counter rather than hand them to her. Though she fingered racism, I couldn’t believe someone at my liberal arts school would still—in 1987!—harbor prejudicial attitudes. I thought, There must be some other explanation than racism. Maybe she misinterpreted what happened…

Again, I shrugged off another woman’s experience.

I’d learned about systemic racism in my Liberation Theologies class. I understood some things, or thought I did. Still there was so much I didn’t want to see.

***

Recently I heard an NPR story about affordable housing. In Dallas, a black mother sought to use a Section 8 housing voucher but was repeatedly denied housing by potential landlords. She said, “Even though we’re financially less capable, we still love our children the same.” Tears in her voice.

A broken heart, reverberating out from the radio waves straight into mine.

***

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It’s hard to look squarely at things we don’t want to think about. Like our country’s genocidal, avaricious origins, and its continued betrayal of large swaths of its people, and the way the legacy of slavery still plays out in devastating ways.

But it’s even harder, these days, to remain blind. The water we swim in is more and more obvious.

I can no longer deny, dismiss, invalidate my brothers’ and sisters’ realities. I can no longer say that my family enjoys a tidy nest egg simply because “we work hard and we save our pennies” when that’s only part of the picture. Our people (going back generations) also were given opportunities to take jobs, buy homes, enjoy tax breaks, receive enriched education. The wealth-generation capacity that we take for granted has been repeatedly denied to people of color, through shameful policies and practices at every level.

It’s angering, horrifying, embarrassing, painful business. The system has consistently rigged itself in white people’s favor.

When facing painful things, it helps to be in community, to hear different voices and experiences, to listen, to accept and feel acceptance in a circle. That’s what happens in Kheprw’s book club and other public forums. Actions grow out of hearing each other and building relationships.

And I know that the black participants in this circle are the authorities on racism, and how that gets expressed through gentrification and so many other ways. All along they’ve been tasting the water we swim in, that I am so late to see as any kind of fluid at all.

Kheprw is a place that both models and works for change—in the hearts of people and in the halls of power. The organization holds its doors open to all willing to create community and serve justice, knowing that who we are on the inside—and how we show up for each other—is as crucial as any external advocacy.

 

 

In a few weeks, youngsters ages 10 to 15 will take part in Kheprw’s three-week boot camp. It’s called eSTEAM, an acronym for Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math. Participants will learn everything from 3D printing and game animation to aquaponics and soil science.

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This innovative program has far-reaching effects, like everything this nimble grassroots organization does. Judy and I decided to allocate some of our resources in support of the scholarship fund. Will you join us in sponsoring a summer camper?

Note: The author of How to Kill a City will join Kheprw’s upcoming book discussion via Skype at 6pm Thursday, June 22. Check out the event page for more ground-breaking gatherings.

Photos courtesy of Kheprw Institute.

One thought on “The Water We Swim

  1. Pingback: Shawndra Miller

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