Not your Sister’s Self-Care

I was asked to write a wellness article for a local women’s magazine, sharing practices that can help us find our footing in the midst of uncertainty. I was in the midst of drafting it when the world blew up for the second time in a few months, with George Floyd’s murder.

Not for the first time, that confluence of events made me really think about self-care in the context of  inequity and social change. Is self-care an inherently selfish act? Does it require donning blinders and living in a syrupy bubble of pampered and precarious comfort?

Not the kind of self-care I mean.

Embodiment teacher/activist Abigail Rose Clarke has said that having the time and space to do mindbody practices is a privilege. And the very fact that this kind of practice is a privilege, she notes, makes it a responsibility.

We who have the time and space to create the change within ourselves that can help heal the world, must do so.

I believe that building our personal resilience does in fact heal the world. I think of the white woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher and claimed he threatened her, after he lawfully requested that she leash her dog. The level of reactivity in that act, aside from its painful demonstration of racism, indicates (to my mind) someone who is not awake to her own need.

Self-care, and not your sister’s self-care of pedicures and bubble baths and pricey skin toners, is a muscular act. It requires facing up to the boiling mess of emotion inside us, and giving it room to flow and transform. So often we suppress the things we don’t want to feel, but they don’t go anywhere but underground.

Then they burst out in annoying and sometimes dangerous ways, like chronic pain or low-grade irritability. Or acute reactivity that puts another in danger.

In actual fact, turning towards our emotions on the regular, with self-kindness, is what relieves and releases them. And it may not look pretty or feel yummy. Rolling on the floor and wailing is not a Calgon-take-me-away moment (totally dating myself with that reference). But I would much rather have a private tantrum than inflict that pent-up frustration, fear, and resentment on another.

(It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tantrum. Maybe it’s just experiencing that inward trio of sensation, thought, and emotion—and following where they lead with curiosity.)

By turning to kinder practices that nourish the body and soul, we become more resilient and less reactive. As we move through our day with less fear, suspicion, and hostility—less triggered, or more able to stay with the triggers and breathe before acting—we truly do build a more compassionate community and world.

I used to teach a class I called Radical Cell(f) Care, offering self-care practices I’d gleaned from various energy healing traditions. I called it radical because this kind of practice gets to the root, because it gives us tools to pause, because it creates change from within. It generates more kindness in a world sorely in need of that.

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The portulaca blooms closed up in yesterday’s rain, and opened again when it stopped. Life inhales and exhales, contracts and expands. 

Now, kindness alone won’t solve the pattern of deadly force against black people and the dearth of justice for their murders, or other ways massive inequities show up in our society. It won’t halt a pandemic’s spread (but may slow it down, as people take precautions, expressing their care for each other). On its own it won’t fix the breakdown of our planetary systems, or the rise of fascism, or other seemingly intractable problems. But I still contend it is a vital tool for addressing the general awfulness that faces us at every turn.

Policies are behind much of the awfulness—policies set by people with power. We are also people… with our own power. Our choices and behaviors can uphold the awfulness, or challenge it, transcend it, create something brand new.

We need to continually refuel for the big and small acts that will make change. We need to embody and radiate the kind of muscular compassion that doesn’t look away from the awfulness, and doesn’t allow it to persist, and points the way to a different kind of world.

Gratitude: I am grateful for the view I have from my desk—our tiny back yard, where I can see young robins eating mock strawberries, and all the garden freshening under rain, and all the chipmunks, neighborhood cats, hummingbirds, bluegray gnatcatchers, sparrows, cardinals and so on making it their playground.

Tip of the Day: From the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is HardI learned that willpower is a finite resource. We exhaust ourselves quickly if we power through with grit alone. It’s not high-quality fuel. I’ve been cultivating a new motivation to fuel I do throughout my day, connecting to a feeling-level motivation where I can. Positive feelings like love, kindness, pride, excitement, and joy have staying power. If you are working toward change, it might be useful to check your fuel levels!

Resource of the Day: I started watching the Reimagining and Remaking America replay with activists Valarie Kaur and Van Jones. Now I can’t wait to read her book, See No Stranger, which makes a case for the ultimate long-haul fuel: revolutionary love.

Who Lives, Who Dies

I am sort of obsessed with all things Hamilton. This refrain from the musical has been running through my head: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

What kind of country and world do we want to create: One where Black people disproportionately die at the hands of police and from the effects of COVID-19? Where the life expectancy of Black men is consistently shorter than that of white men? 

What story will be told when we look back at this time, and by whom? The people whose stories have not been heard or respected no matter how they try to tell them… are demanding to be heard NOW.

The next American revolution, civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs writes, is about “creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old.” (More on building a new world in the Resource of the Day below.) We see societal disintegration unfolding in real time now, even as some of us have been pointing to it for a while.

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Photo by Victoria Pickering, via Flickr Creative Commons

The young people taking to the streets to express their grief and rage? They are the revolutionaries moving this country closer to the”radically different form of living” Boggs writes about. And revolutions are messy, chaotic deals. Violent acts are going to be part of the picture. Though I myself identify with a pacifist tradition, I can’t say anything against any form of protest, especially when the simple nonviolent act of “taking a knee” was so vilified, especially when, year after year, we see little change in the ongoing twin outrages of police brutality and escaping accountability.

When 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones talks about Black Americans being the ones perfecting America’s democracy, I get it. The people taking to the streets are working, at great personal peril, to make this country live up to its promise.

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

—Frederick Douglass

A major contradiction lives at the heart of our national history: our American ideals of “we the people” and “freedom” began as falsehoods that continue to this day. (Thanks to Hannah-Jones for making this plain.)

I have what I have largely because of white privilege. My parents bought their first home in Indianapolis in the early 1960s, benefiting from lending practices that excluded African American homebuyers. I still benefit from that legacy and a host of other exclusionary policies that preferenced white people over Black and brown people.

And even leaving policy aside, I live in a body that is seen as relatively “standard”—white, thin, currently able-bodied, cisgender, feminine in appearance (can pass for straight). Listening to Black voices tells me that my experience of moving through the world with relative ease (even as a woman, even as a close descendant of the culturally marginalized Amish, even as a lesbian, even as a socially awkward “weird kid,” even as I age) is not one Black people share.

My professional and educational status contribute to this ease as well. I’m about as close to the power structure as you can get without being hetero and male.

And the natural world that I so love, that soothes me? Can be a dangerous place for Black people. It’s heartbreaking to listen to stories of Black nature-lovers who just want to have a little breathing room, but feel unsafe (for good reason) even gassing up a vehicle on the way to some of the places I love. Let alone exploring a nature preserve alone as I sometimes do.

My sense of entitlement has not been plain to me over the course of my life, because it is the water I swim. But it is past time for the last of the blinders to come off.

I can’t change the fact of my privilege, but I can work within it to realign things in some way. Writer Eula Biss calls it the White Debt. I feel especially indebted to the protesters who are trying to turn the tide in this country, and that is why I support reparations, assist the Indy Bail Project, call the mayor, write my city council, contribute to Black-led changemaking orgs, etc. It isn’t enough. And it also isn’t about me. I know I have so much to learn.

But I do believe this quote attributed to a Queensland Aboriginal activists group applies to me:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Gratitude: This is an incredible time to be alive. Every day brings new learning, new chances to contribute.

Tip of the Day: Moment-to-moment choices define a life, and as Grace Lee Boggs says, “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be, and you do choose how you want to think.” Choose with heartfelt mindfulness, as you can.

Resource of the Day: Join civil rights attorney/Revolutionary Love founder Valarie Kaur and progressive activist Van Jones for a Dream Corps session on Reimagining and Remaking America Thursday, June 18 (or catch the replay). I have been a fan of Mr. Jones for quite some time and was blown away by Valarie Kaur’s TED talk. 

Virus

You’re scared, because you don’t feel safe. Maybe if you do all the right things, you’ll avoid it. Maybe there’s a way to keep your children safe, your elders protected, your mentally challenged family member from putting himself at risk. Maybe extreme vigilance will keep everyone you love from harm.

You’re angry, because you have to alter plans, take extra precautions, work around rules that you had no part in setting. And still you may not escape it.

You’re exhausted, because the threat seems unending. Maybe you’re not even safe at home.

You’re grieving, because every day more and more people–folks who look like you–suffer and die needlessly.

Coronavirus? No, I’m talking about another public health crisis–a pattern of police using deadly force against Black people.

After George Floyd suffocated to death under a white cop’s knee on his neck, how can we white people continue to look away from the insidious virus that has infected this country from its inception–that of white supremacy? 

The loss of humanity that would enable someone to kneel on another human being’s neck while he gasps for air? I can’t fathom it. It’s sickening. But that doesn’t mean I should look away.

Notice: The people gasping for air because of COVID-19 are disproportionately people of color. They must daily deal with the stress of racism, which takes a very real physiological and psychological toll. Meanwhile access to resources is inordinately skewed in favor of people who look like me. The deck is stacked, and COVID-19 only reveals the disparities more. (Here’s data about coronavirus and the Black community in my county.)

Frans de Waal, a biologist, has said that empathy is an essential part of the survival package of any species, and that includes humans. Will we survive this time in our history? Can we expand our understanding and empathy rapidly, or will we close our personal borders, shut down all gateways to the truth of our interconnectedness?

Yes, we are all in this together, but people who have been shortchanged all along are being hit harder. May our collective experience of facing down COVID-19 unify us, enlarge our empathy for each other, and make us see more clearly how to create a future where all are valued, respected, and offered the same access to resources, healthcare, jobs, education, housing, etc. etc. etc.

Gratitude: I’m grateful for cogent voices calling for change, like How to be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, local organizer Imhotep Adisa, 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Me and White Supremacy author Layla Saad.

Tip of the Day: Support local Black-led changemaking groups in your community (Kheprw Institute is a standout here).

Resource of the Day: Anti-racism resources for white people.

The Wound

A parable for our times?

A few years ago I had a wound that wouldn’t heal. It started as a tiny boil on my shin. I assumed the eruption was a spider bite, covered it with a band-aid and tried to forget it.

Then the little “bite” darkened, started to hurt worse.

Next it swelled up and turned angry-red. By now I had a quarter-sized wound that was hot to the touch, excruciating.

At this point I finally went to the doctor and discovered I had contracted MRSA, a bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics. (I’ll spare you the visual. You’re welcome.)

I fought any suggestion of draining that wound, though everyone who looked at it told me it was the only way it would ever heal. The idea of a blade touching that thing sent me into the stratosphere.

Instead I tried everything else. Antibiotics. Hot compresses. Charcoal. Essential oils. Chewed-up plantain leaves! I spoke to the wound, asked it to please please please just let that infection go.

I began to think I would have to live with a grotesque open wound forever.

Needless to say, it did not drain on its own. After almost a month, I finally went to a wound specialist who briskly prepped the area for lancing.

It was as I thought: Lancing a wound hurts.

Yeah it really, really hurt. Blood and pus rolled down my shin. Awful.

And that wasn’t the end of it. The wound was deep. Necrotic tissue had to be cleaned out in a process called debridement, which amounts to vigorously rubbing a Brillo pad over the wound (or that’s what it felt like anyway).

But that open wound could even not begin to heal until the nastiness and dead junk could come out. The wound had to be expressed. Only then could my flesh begin to rebuild.

Maybe it’s like this with the body politic. I don’t know if this is a good parable, but what if… ?

What if … in this time which I like to call the Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs, we are at the very early stage of expressing the wound, readying for some deep inside-out healing?

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Photo by Jordan Small, via Flickr Creative Commons

Our country was founded on some fine ideals, but it was also founded on slavery and genocide. Horrific wounds.

The infection has always run under the surface of this country. Those of us who live with a measure of privilege, because of our race and/or class and/or gender status etc., have been able to ignore it.

Or maybe we think that covering it with band-aids will be enough.

Or maybe, like some in power, we actively move to put salt in the wound while simultaneously denying its existence.

Meanwhile people of color have never been protected from the ugliness that festers.

It’s painful to see that ugliness brought to the surface in racist words and deeds. Is it possible that this dangerous deterioration of public discourse is (at least partially?) about facing up to our collective past? That we are on the cusp of finally cleaning this wound out so our collective body can heal?

Of course, I’m not at all sure this “last gasp” isn’t the start of horrors beyond belief. But I imagine that is largely up to us. A wound can get reinfected if it isn’t properly tended to. The growth of new tissue happens slowly, in raw and tender layers.

A metaphor that only goes so far, but perhaps has some usefulness.

From “Me too” to “We All”

Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.

If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.

One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.

We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.

I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.

Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.

Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?

What is the psychic toll?

And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?

(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)

My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?

What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.

Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.

Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.

Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.

It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.

20170928_095742 (768x1024)I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.

And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.

A Challenge

My heart is heavy. Here in America we have people dying before their time: from fires in Santa Rosa, flooding in Puerto Rico. Bullets in Las Vegas.

(Fires exacerbated by drought linked to climate change. Floods from an extreme weather event that’s part of a pattern linked to climate destabilization. All the while, political corruption keeps the fossil fuels flowing. And political apathy, it seems, keeps Puerto Rico’s plight off the priority list. As far as the bullets…I’m just tired.)

Meanwhile we have whole swathes of our population subject to brutal treatment because of their race. And then being told that they are anti-American for their peaceful, silent form of protest. Never mind that nothing else has moved the needle on police brutality. The ugly face of white supremacy has taken off its mask, emboldened by our bully-in-chief.

I don’t know where to begin to unravel the intertwined injustices and exploitation and alienation that grip our society.

But I don’t want to go numb. Let me not go numb.

I confess I’m not well-read in these arenas, perhaps in part because I myself have not had up-close-and-personal experience with a superstorm (yet?), or a mass shooting (yet?), or racial violence. But I experience myself as part of the collective, and I am affected. I feel increasingly uncomfortable swimming along in my tidy, sheltered life in the face of monumental suffering.

In my last post I wrote about erosion as metaphor for social change. I acknowledged my unearned good fortune. I spoke of my role as a changemaker on a quiet scale.

All true. Yet something about that combination seems too easy, a bridge to complacency. For someone as privileged as myself—born by sheer accident to middle class white Americans with preferential opportunity/credit/housing over black Americans—the cop-outs come a little too quickly.

(The nest egg my parents nurtured through this preferential treatment, they passed on to me in the form of higher education and help buying my first home. Just one example of societal inequity in action, aka The Water We Swim.)

At a recent civic conversation on the historical implications of slavery,* we white folks were challenged to use our power, access, and money to address systemic racism.

I am trying to figure out what that looks like. I feel like a child still learning. So I’ve turned to other voices to school me.

Here’s Layla Saad, speaking to spiritual white women about white supremacy:

Without meaning to, a lot of times nice, well-meaning white women can contribute in a big way to the problems we see because they don’t speak up, or they want to keep things polite, or they think the best thing they can do is just focus on being a loving person rather than ‘getting involved in politics’. This white silence, white privilege and white shame leads to a lot of white complicity in white supremacy…

As a white person, you have the privilege of being able to say, ‘high vibes only’ and ‘I don’t follow the news because it’s too political’ and ‘I just want to focus on love and light’.

I don’t follow the news. I do want to focus on love and light. Which leads me to keep silent on many issues, believing naively, lazily, that emanating love/peace/care is enough.

The cognitive dissonance is rising. I say I care about justice. What does that look like? Bottom line: I need to figure out how to use my platform (such as it is) to talk about injustice much less obliquely.

Here’s Andrae Ranae (who offers a marvelous coaching-as-activism program) on the limits of the self-help industry and why those of us identifying as do-gooders need to bring social justice into our healing work:

Your work could bring massive sustainable change to many lives, families, and communities, but it won’t if you don’t critically look at the social context that you’re working within….

Your isolated happiness and success does not serve anyone, including you. We are not meant to thrive in isolation. We need each other to do well. If there are people down the street from you that are not well, you’re not well. If there are people across the world that aren’t well, you’re not well. If our Earth is not well, we are not well.

Challenge accepted. I want to continue learning and self-reflecting and imperfectly stretching toward wherever this leads.

My current feeling is this: Since any one of us could die at any moment, we’d better get to living now. It’s always been true, but seems even more so these days, in an age of crisis. Far from bringing me down, remembering this gives me courage.

That, and the basic fact I am Light. And so are You.

* Public Conversation on Race, happening the second Sunday of every month (except November). See https://www.racedialogues.org/

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.