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.

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?

KI EcoCenter: Transforming Education

Second in a series on education
KI EcoCenter, or Kheprw Institute, has been making change for nearly a decade in my hometown. In recent years, educator Khalil MwaAfrika came on board the community empowerment center to start an independent school. He was tired of discussing school reform while watching the educational system destroy African-American children, particularly boys.

Khepri, by Jeff Dahl via Wikimedia Commons

Khepri, by Jeff Dahl (GFDL or Creative Commons) via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of reform, he is invested in nothing less than education’s complete transformation. As  mentioned in a previous post, “Kheprw” was an Egyptian god with a scarab beetle head. This beetle was a symbol of rebirth in Egypt—so the center is fittingly named.

KI’s school offers a rigorous program for African-American students. Classes are very small, allowing a high degree of mentorship. Community members interact with the students every day in this intergenerational model.

MwaAfrika emphasizes that igniting a passion for learning is key. Instead of promoting a particular ideology, faculty create space for discourse and dialogue. In that environment the children learn critical thinking skills. They are encouraged to puzzle things out themselves.

In contrast with the traditional school system, here there is no need for the youngsters to feel they must give up their own rich culture in order to succeed.

This issue came up repeatedly at the center’s recent Real Talk Summit on urban education. Because our dominant culture is white/upper middle class, racism is the water we all swim in—leading to schools that don’t believe in children from other races and classes.

A faculty member and student at KI EcoCenter Community School

A faculty member and student at KI EcoCenter Community School

But KI is different. “We’ve set up an environment where (black students) can be themselves, where they can learn exponentially, where they never have to compromise who they are,” MwaAfrika says.

KI founder Imhotep Adisa notes, “The primary purpose of education is indoctrination. It’s not liberation.”

Part of that indoctrination is the consumerism that is jeopardizing the earth. “We’re at a very ugly place in the history of the planet,” he says. “Regardless of gender, race, and class, the old paradigm has accelerated this…We have to develop new tools for a new paradigm. We have to have the courage to say, ‘That’s not the world we want for ourselves and our children.’”

KI’s adults model that courage every day. Teaching youth to interface with the culture of power while retaining their identity is a critical aspect of their work.

Social enterprises are part of this, as the students work with KI’s bootstrappers (young adults) to develop the skills needed to thrive in a resource-strapped world.

Barrel at left is via KI's Express Yourself Rainbarrels enterprise, with my chosen artwork

Barrel at left is via KI’s Express Yourself Rainbarrels enterprise, with my chosen artwork

Above (at left) is the rainbarrel made by bootstrappers and students for my urban homestead, via the Express Yourself Rainbarrels enterprise. My partner added it to our rain catchment setup, just in time for big rains.

(Indy-area readers, check it out: Save on your water bill, display your artwork, and support a great organization all at the same time.)

Read more about KI’s work in my Indiana Living Green story.

Next: Bloomington’s homeschooling cooperative, exploring the homestead as learning environment.