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.

Cocooning and Re-Forming

I’ve been cocooning. I’m on a news fast. I don’t check Facebook very often.

It’s just: I’m healthier this way. And I can best hold space for others if I let go of both outrage and fear.

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“Feather” by Nathan, via Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes this might look like disinterest, or disconnection from the political realm that holds sway over so many people’s lives. I recognize that real people will be affected by the decisions coming out of Washington, and most of it won’t be pretty for a lot of us.

But if I rest in equanimity despite all that, I take back power and authority from those who would steal it away. I don’t have to give away my solid, grounded sense of basic OK-ness, no matter what dire outcomes are predicted.

And maybe by staying centered, I can be part of a cadre who will see a way to make real societal change. (I realize that my privilege insulates me from the worst of the proposals, which could have devastating impact. All the more reason to stay focused on transformation, as best I can.)

Instead of following the latest issues around health-care reform, I focus on ways to re-form myself and my approach to my own health and care.

This is something each of us can do. And we can help each other. And we don’t have to wait for anyone else to make that possible. It can happen now and now and now.

Not to oversimplify the real risks to people with major illness, disability, mental illness, and others in danger of falling through the cracks. I appreciate every single person who agitates for the little guy.

Still, surely everyone, regardless of politics, can support empowerment towards personal/community wellbeing. Especially if it costs nothing.

What costs nothing, yet enhances personal/community wellbeing? Some ideas:

  • Following Youtube videos from Lee Holden, who offers chi gong instruction to calm body and mind
  • Connecting with likeminded folks, say at one of Kheprw Institute’s many civic-minded forums and gatherings
  • Offering a smile to a stranger, chat with a neighbor, hug for a friend
  • Noticing beauty
  • Paying attention to one’s inner emotional state, and being kind to it
  • Being kind in general
  • Giving undivided (device-free) attention to a child, an animal, a friend
  • Connecting with my Facebook group, A Transformative Space, where we play with personal/planetary transformation
  • Enjoying deep breaths
  • Dancing
  • Walking in the woods
  • Forgiving someone else or yourself
  • Taking a break from media, or at least social media
  • Your idea here
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“Cocoon” by Louise LeClerc, via Flickr Creative Commons

 

My sense is that more of us could benefit from a measure of quiet introspection, even if it’s just for a few quiet moments each day. And certainly all of us could benefit from more real and caring communication.

I would love to hear what you are doing to re-form yourself, whether or not you find yourself cocooning in this fraught political season. Please comment below if you feel so led!

Preserving Timeless Arts

Last weekend I had two encounters that felt like variations on a theme.

One was at Kheprw Institute, where we were discussing Charles Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.  Kheprw co-founder Imhotep Adisa suggested that our over-reliance on technology compromises our more intuitive ways of communicating and knowing.

“Reality is not limited to that one way of knowing,” Im said, speaking of scientific inquiry and measurable phenomena. (Besides: Who determines what’s worth being measured? Who sets up the arbiters, institutions, and gatekeepers of scientific findings?)

It’s definitely possible to communicate instantaneously without benefit of a text. Many of us have had that experience from time to time. And for those of us in the energy work arena, merging with someone else’s energy field is a skill we cultivate.

But the more we rely on texting to do the work of instantaneous communication, Im suggested, the more we atrophy our native abilities.

Speaking for myself, I know that distracting myself through technology can seriously gunk up my intuition. To be quiet and still enough to sense information differently, I have to spend time away from the addictive barrage of information and communication.

Later it struck me that Im’s words had their parallel in an earlier encounter, with a friend who’s devoted to preserving another dying art: traditional willow weaving. Viki Graber, a fourth-generation willow basket weaver, spent the weekend constructing a living sculpture at Salamonie Reservoir.

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The tunnel will grow thicker and more elaborate with time.

We drove up to see her, and she told us about the project. She received a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to build living willow structures at three parks this year.

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To make her baskets and sculptures, she grows her own willow bushes—14 different species!—on her property in northern Indiana. For this project though, she harvested wild willow shoots from along the lakeshore. She planted these in the ground about eight inches deep along the muddy bank of a pond, where they should take root. She bent the willow into a tunnel, complete with round windows.

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Me and my old friend Viki

For the next few years she will come back to weave new growth into the structure. A true collaboration.

Viki is passionate about sustaining traditional folk art in general (and willow-work in particular). She wants to keep these skills alive and pass them on to the next generation, and she loves to teach others.

As a functional artist, Viki makes beautiful objects that people want to use. Surely we all have the aptitude to create beauty for each other, whether that’s through physical creations or acutely attuned knowing.

Penney Peirce, in her book Frequency, suggests that we are all equally sensitive, with the very human ability to feel and sense and know things instantly. It’s just that some of us are consciously sensitive, and others unconsciously so.

I would add that some of us, like Viki and Im, are consciously invested in preserving useful, beautiful, timeless arts that the dominant culture tends to devalue.

What traditional, lost, or dying arts/skills call to you? Where do you make your mark in preserving ways that aren’t supported by our acquisitive go-go-go culture?

The World We Seek

“Isolation and fear reinforce each other…The mystery at the core of our existence is that simple: we are held in a web of mutual belonging.”

Joanna Macy, Buddhist activist and teacher

Joanna Macy talks about three dimensions of “The Great Turning”—the cultural shift happening all around us, taking us into a future built on justice, equity, and respect for our earth home. She divides this most important work of our time into three overarching action areas:

  1. We can hold the line, protecting what’s at risk.
  2. We can reinvent, building new structures that supplant the crumbling outdated ones.
  3. We can reimagine, nurturing a consciousness shift to transform the world from the inside out.

In recent years I’ve been drawn to the third of these. A little bit to the second. Not so much the first, though I care deeply about what happens to women, marginalized groups, the poor, and our planet.

I care, but I’m not much of an activist in the traditional sense of the word. Constitutionally I am more primed for shining light on beauty than beating back ugly.

So I admit I was at first hesitant to go to my local rally in support of Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington. Protests are important and needed, as are phone calls and watchdog alerts and bodily interruptions of heinous activities like mass deportations.

I’m more of re-envisioner by nature. And I don’t like crowds. I guard my energy carefully.

But my intuition told me that going to the sister march in Indianapolis would not drain me. And I knew it was important to show up and be counted as an Indiana resident in favor of ethical leadership and fairness and, well, humanity’s future on the planet.

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What I didn’t realize that riding the bus downtown, joining the jubilant women and men assembled there, would fuel me. That being part of this fantastically big (worldwide!) event would renew my hope and feed my desire to remake the world.

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I saw a very young boy with a rainbow scarf and a small sign that said “Make America Kind Again.” A man with a Steelers jacket and an incongruous (or not!) pink ribbon around his arm.

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Photo by Gaynell Collier-Magar

I saw fathers being tender with their daughters and sons, a woman in a wheelchair with oxygen tubing in her nose and a Planned Parenthood sign across her lap, and many beautiful people of all ages, body sizes, genders, and races.

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“Though she be but little, she is FIERCE.”

The day left me with a sense of unity that feels part and parcel of both reinvention and reimagining. I could see it in the creativity and passion expressed through signs, clothing, song, speech, movement.

img_5808When I got home and started to see reports of other cities’ marches all over the world, I felt an incredible lift. I thought, The world has my back.

This healed my broken heart, or began to heal it.

I know that the impact of a one-day march, no matter how colossal in size, is limited if we all go back to our regularly scheduled lives. But something tells me that this is just the beginning. If we hold to our hearts, staying awake AND kind, we can’t be far from the new world we seek.

Homegrown

I got to meet local farmer Patty Langeland when I interviewed her for a Farm Indiana piece. She is the fifth generation on Langeland Farms in southeast Indiana, growing certified organic popcorn, beans, and grains. Her business extends to regional popcorn and grains production, and she also maintains a small cow-calf herd, selling grassfed beef.

Here she is five years ago (on right) at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, after delivering Langeland Farms beef to be used in “Homegrown Chili.”

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Patty has such deep roots in the community. You could say that she herself is a homegrown farmer. So many of us move far from home to find work, and change our housing repeatedly. Here’s a woman who lives in the house where she grew up (built by her grandpa over 100 years ago) and works the land where she used to play.

What I found most fascinating about Patty was the trajectory of her life from farm girl to farmer, and the detours in between.

She never expected to be a farmer, though she knew she loved the land. Like many of us, she can look back and trace the threads of learning that connect to what she does now.

She actually majored in fashion retail at Purdue for a time, and her business sense and creative flair flourished there. But when it sank in that such a career would require her to live in a city, she knew it wasn’t going to work out.

All along, she had been taking classes in the agriculture department, building on the knowledge she’d absorbed without even meaning to as a child on the farm. (A Daddy’s girl, she used to follow her father around and ask every question under the sun.) Eventually, just because she was fascinated by the agricultural arena—with no intent of ever turning it into a career—she ended up specializing in animal science when she graduated from the communications department.

Her life took a traumatic turn when her husband left her, their four boys, and the farm business abruptly. That’s when she ended up being the sole proprietor of the farm (though her beloved dad still owns the land).

It was quite moving to hear her speak of the support her local farming community gave her during this cataclysmic shift, and how her success hinged on a drought year. You can read more about all this in the story if you like.

On Peace Day

This was my favorite moment of the Peace Day gathering last week at Rivoli Park Labyrinth: when young Elijah piped up with an innocent question. He’s 9, and his mother Alicia Oskay was leading us in some gentle postures and breathing. When she mentioned how yoga brings more peacefulness, in keeping with International Day of Peace, Elijah stage whispered, “Is that a thing?”

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Alicia and her son Elijah modeling hip stretches.

Why yes, young sir. Your mother did not make it up. This Peace Day business is for real. According to the website, “Peace Day provides a globally shared date for all humanity to commit to Peace above all differences and to contribute to building a Culture of Peace.”

International Day of Peace is observed around the world each year on September 21st, ever since it was established in 1981 by a unanimous United Nations resolution. In recent years, people observing the day have begun using the hashtag #peaceday to share stories of random acts of kindness and inspirational quotes on social media.

Locally, about 25 people came together at Rivoli Park Labyrinth to mark the day. This pocket park in a vacant lot, founded by Lisa Boyles, has hosted many other meaningful gatherings.

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View of the labyrinth from my forward bend.

After yoga, Lisa invited all of us to make #PeaceDay signs for our walk through the Rivoli Park neighborhood with local law enforcement. (For everyone making a sign, she banked a half hour on TimeBank Indy, our local hours-bartering exchange network.)

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Elijah shows the poster he and his mother created.

Both the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department were represented in our little march. We drew honks and waves and fist pumps from passing drivers, and one woman on foot offered several God-bless-yous.

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Getting ready to walk the neighborhood.

We returned to the pocket park to share food and conversation, and walk the labyrinth at our leisure. For more details on the day, find an IndyStar photo essay here.

Lisa has coordinated the labyrinth’s fans into various neighborhood projects over the years. Coming up this week is Indy Do Day—an annual three-day citywide service blitz, set for Sept. 29, 30, and Oct. 1. The Rivoli Park Labyrinth was installed on Indy Do Day on October 10, 2013.

“I would like the tradition of doing service and giving back to continue,” she says, emphasizing that everyone is encouraged to find an Indy Do Day opportunity to spread some good in the community. She herself plans to offer her time packing snack bags for children in a low-income neighborhood alongside a group called #gRoE , Inc.

Projects like these can be found by searching the website of Indy Do Day.