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.