INCLUDING DIVERSITY

It’s summer time, and hopefully that means there is a bit more time to make some intentional decisions around including diversity in your practice, interactions, experiences, and education.

I’m actually writing this from the back row of my daughters’ dance dress rehearsal, and thankful for the decision to choose a dance school that has incredible racial diversity. Back in August, when the two girls expressed interest in taking dance, we traveled to over a dozen dance schools. In all honesty, I was curious to find out the differences in prices — with two girls and limited resources, I wanted to make sure they could both attend dance classes. However, as we visited schools, I glanced at all of the lovely, glossy photos on the walls. And, at each school, there were few-to-no children who looked like my own — dark skin, curly hair, visible disability.

I was so committed to my children having diverse role models, classmates, and interactions that I was getting ready to close the door to dance classes.  As a feminist of color, I was also interested in how dance schools talked about body image, body-positive acceptance, and messaging around body size. So, despite my desire to give up, my older daughter pleaded, “Mom, just one more! Please let’s look at one more!” I gave in, and we drove to the heart of our downtown city, and located a dance school. It was in a slightly run down building, and it was a very reasonable price for two kids. But, more importantly to me, the woman who ran the school is a dark skin, beautiful, plus size woman with a strong dancer’s body.

As the year progressed, my daughters were exposed to a racially diverse group of girls, parents, families, and teacher. To them, their “first message” of who a dance teacher is will be their teacher — their beautiful and strong teacher who looks like them; who looks like their aunts; who looks like their grandmother.

And, as I sit here blinded by the sequins and jazz hands from the back row, I am amazed at what a powerful message my girls received every week — about themselves, about their bodies, about their teachers, and about their classmates.

One of my most linked blogs was the one on “what do to when there isn’t diversity.” Well, now that it’s summer time, I thought it would be good to revisit some great tools for using this time to include diversity (now and always!). These are just beginning points, not end points. Let’s get started!

  • plan a field trip to a local (nearby?) historic site that teaches from a point of view you may not have been taught. For example, we live near Boston — this year, we plan on visiting some of the early African American and Native American memorials and historic sites. Our kids spend a lot of time learning about the “settlers”; well, let’s also expand their education into those who were here first and who came with a different story.
  • Read a book a week. Borrow books that have representation from different ethnic groups, cultures, family structures, etc.
  • As an adult, introduce a topic of conversation with your kids/younger ones. WE tend to need some sort of segue, context, etc., but I have found that the whole “wait until they bring it up” approach really doesn’t work. Would you wait until they ASK to cross the street before WE bring up the topic, hold their hands, and show them how? No, of course not. So, let’s not wait until they ASK about race, gender, stereotypes, bullying, love, etc.
  • Go play at a playground you don’t usually visit –you might see more diversity of mobility, race, ethnicity, body types, parenting structures. I grew up in a small town, with very little diversity in our neighborhood. So, even when we went to the most local playground, it was made up of kids who I knew from school. Whenever we ventured into a new neighborhood, I had to learn how to play with kids I didn’t know; who maybe didn’t look like anyone I played with; and who I was not used to. Try this. See if it takes you outside of your own comfort zone as a parent/care taker/adult, too.
  • Finally reach out to that person you’ve wanted to talk to, but felt like you were too busy — it’s summer. People tend to be a bit more relaxed; a bit more interested in meeting up with others. That person you always “like” on Facebook but never make eye contact with when you see him/her? Set up a coffee date, a walk, or a real live chat.
  • Volunteer somewhere for so many obvious reasons that contribute to socially just reciprocity, good old fun, feel-good experiences, and also as an opportunity to get out of your own comfort zone. Is there a family friendly opportunity? Take your kids or young ones, too.
  • Try a new food from an ethnic/racial/cultural group and be open to the experience
  • Listen to a new album, type of music, genre, style. I don’t tend to listen to traditional/folk music, so I never look up these types of bands. Recently, a friend of mine told me about Carolina Chocolate Drops — a old time banjo, string, guitar band of African Americans. Their stuff is awesome. I’ve listened to their album every single day for a week now. It opened up doors to music, history, culture, and information that I had never accessed before!
  • Find a street festival, a celebration
  • Go seek out different cultural organizations that are hosting lectures, get-togethers, community socials, and find ways to contribute and to be open the knowledge of that community
  • Find a book club that focuses on diversity and participate

Though these tend to fall into the food/festival/fun experiences in diversity, they are a good way to get started. But, also use this time as an opportunity to expand your own knowledge and the education of your kids/young ones. Talk proactively about race, love, families, disability, body image, gender.
Why wait?

Peace, love, and actively including,

Liza

**Please note: Any ads you see below this line are not placed there by me. Rather, they are randomly selected by WordPress and not by Liza at all. Thank you.

Voices

We all hear voices. There are voices that encourage us, tear us down, remind us where we parked the car, and debate whether to eat that piece of late night chocolate cake or choose a tall glass of water instead. We all hear voices. But, how many of us listen to them? How many times to we need to hear them before we believe them?

On Sunday, we had our first snow storm of the season. It wasn’t a major storm, only left about 1/2 an inch on the ground. But, given the unpredictable weather here in the Northeast, there was snow, then rain, then snow. Outside was like a winter wonderland, if said wonderland was a thick sheet of oil on wax paper.

My husband was outside scraping the car windshields and pushing the shovel on the driveway to clear off the layer of snow. He and my girls were getting ready to go to the movies, so he was working quickly. He set his own car radio to his favorite hip-hop station and closed the door. The music was loud enough to hear it, but not quite loud enough drown out the sound of my old car engine humming and wheezing as if the cold triggered some sort of automobile asthma.

“Jorge. Jorge.” Jorge looked up at our house and saw an empty window. He heard a woman’s voice call his name, and figured if it was me, I’d just come outside to speak with him. “Jorge. Jorge.” He looked towards my next door neighbor’s house. Our neighbor is 9 months pregnant. He thought maybe something was wrong, but with the two cars in their driveway, he was confident no one was calling him from their house. Jorge returned to dragging the shovel along the ice covered driveway. Tsksaappshkkkksh. Scrreeeppphsskkkksh. Scraappshkkkk. He fell into a groove scraping the snow back and forth across the wide part of our driveway. Shovel hits the pavement, walk across the driveway, toss the little fold of snow onto the grass, turn around and repeat.

“Jorge. Jorge.”

“Okay, I heard that,” Jorge thinks to himself. He put down the shovel and walked around the side of our house. Maybe our neighbor who lives behind our house was calling him. Jorge looked over at their elevated back porch. No one there.

At this point, Jorge had been outside for more than 8 minutes, and it was time to get the girls and leave for the movies. He placed the shovel against the side of our house, turned off the cars, and stood up to admire his great driveway work. Hands on his hips, chest out, head held high — Jorge had that  “I-Am-The-King-Of-My-Driveway” feeling.

“Jorge. Jorge.”

Jorge walked to the end of our driveway, looking to the left and to the right. He had heard the voice this time, but now he was listening.

“Jorge. Help!”

Across the street, through the thick wooden slats of the newly constructed ramp, Jorge saw a pink long sleeve waving at him.

“Jorge. I can’t get up. Please help me.”

Jorge leaped across the street to find Margaret, an older woman in her 80s, who recently had surgery, lying flat on her back at the bottom of the slippery ramp. His heart began to beat frantically. “I came outside to place sand on the ramp, and I fell. I can’t get up,” Margaret said with both an urgency and relief.

After helping Margaret, offering to call an ambulance or a family member,  shoveling her driveway, defrosting her car, and sanding her ramp, Jorge came back into the house.

Liza, I heard her,” Jorge said visibly shaken as he re-told his story.She had been lying like that in the cold for at least 5 minutes. I heard her. I know I heard her. But, I ignored her. I don’t know if I ignored her or the voice, but I definitely heard my name called a few times. Imagine if I went inside and never came back out? Imagine if I never was outside to begin with, and no one helped her? I heard her voice, and I didn’t listen to it.”

****

I went to the grocery store this evening just to pick up a few quick items. Butter. Bread. Cheese. Nothing special. I fit these items in my arms, forgoing the gray plastic basket with the thick black handle. I find the grocery store experience to be hit-or-miss. Sometimes, the store is filled with friendly people — people who make passing conversation while selecting fruit in the produce aisle, a kind person with a shopping cart full of groceries who lets you go ahead if you only have a small basket, or a cashier who smiles, looks you in the eye, and says, “Hello!” Then, there are the times when people aren’t so friendly. Those are the times when people park their shopping carts in the middle of the already skinny aisle, or when you are coming out of an aisle and a person is steamrolling their cart perpendicular to you, or a cashier who can’t muster out a “Do you have your Stop & Shop card” without attitude.

Today was one of the “unfriendly” days. Even in the 15 minutes I was in the store, I already felt anxious and annoyed. In the line, I placed my items on the belt but didn’t bother to separate my items from the person in front of me with the plastic “don’t-even-come-near-my-food” bar (despite the fact that you could have laid a small child end-to-end between her items and mine). I was annoyed. I wanted to get out of there. I already had my Stop & Shop card and my debit card ready to go.

I could feel someone enter into the line behind me. Since the grocery store rules of engagement were already set at “don’t mess with me”, I just kept looking straight ahead. “Miss?” Eyes focused, straight ahead, counting the items until it was my turn. “Excuse me.” I didn’t recognize the voice, so I kept looking ahead. Phew! Almost done with the woman in front of me.

“Ma’am, excuse me, could you please help me?”

I turned around quickly and glanced slightly above my own eye level. At 5’3″, just about everyone is taller than I am, so I naturally look up whenever I anticipate eye contact. No one.

I quickly gazed down. Behind a gray basket piled high with food was a man with a black eye patch over his left eye. He appeared unsteady in his wheelchair as he balanced the overflowing food.

“Ma’am, I was wondering if you could help me unload the items onto the belt. It’s too heavy and far for me to reach.”

“Sir, yes. I’d be happy to help. Is there any particular order you want these in — boxes first? Cans first? Produce?” Did I sound like I was overcompensating in an attempt to relieve my embarrassment?

“No, if you could help me get them on the belt I can ask the person bagging them to stack it evenly.”

I began to unload boxes of stuffing, packages of ground beef, multiple cans of vegetables, and a rather heavy Jennie-O turkey onto the belt. “Looks like you’re cooking up a feast!” I say with a smile. “It’s like a Thanksgiving meal!”

“There’s a lot to be thankful for, ma’am. There is no sense in realizing that only once a year!” he said with a smile. My eyes moved from his teeth to his brown eye, and then over to his eye patch – a familiar and comforting object in my world.

I looked at him, in his eye, and returned the smile. “You’ve got that right,” I said.

“Thanks for your help, ma’am. God bless.”

“You’re welcome, Sir. Enjoy all that cooking!”

I finished paying, grabbed my bags, thanked the cashier and the young man who put the items into my reusable shopping bag, and left.

***
In 24 hours, situations could have turned out differently if we didn’t listen to voices. We heard the voices. I know my husband and I can both admit to that. But, neither one of us listened to them. What was it like for Margaret to see my husband — just barely across the street — and have him ignore her cry for help? Had he gone inside, she would have been alone. Cold. Scared. Frustrated. What was it like for the man in line to try and get my attention at least 3 times? Did he feel angry? Upset? Invisible? I heard him. I certainly did. But, I didn’t listen to him.

When do we ignore voices? Which voices do we choose to listen to? Which voices do we choose to hear? How many times have we left someone feeling alone, cold, scared and frustrated? How many times have we left someone feeling angry, upset and invisible simply because we chose not to hear or listen to them?

What do we risk by searching for those voices that we hear, by listening a bit closer to see if they are cries for help, assistance, or just connection? What do we gain?

Gifts

Yes, yes, I’ve been blog-slacking. Truth is, I have about a dozen “drafts” in the box that just haven’t seen completion in the past few weeks. It’s a combination of recovering from a nasty battle with bronchitis, some very charged race stuff going on at work, and the overall insanity of the holiday start up.

So, here is a quick one from me — timely, no less, given that it’s the start of the traditions I abhor the most… GIFTS.

I’ve written about the following ad nauseum: I am a terrible gift giver. There is just something about the materialistic nature of “gift giving” that makes me crazy. I absolutely believe that Joli’s illness was one of the best things that could have happened to our family. Prior to her illness, I was a shop-a-holic. I loved giving gifts, receiving gifts, buying things for absolutely no reason at all, and loved collecting items. Once Joli got sick, I felt such an aversion to “things.” We didn’t buy much of anything when she was in treatment (mostly because all of our money was going to medical related expenses). That Christmas, we were the recipients of one of those “giving trees” that people do at work. You know, the one where you get an anonymous tag that says “2-year old girl” and bring the gift into work? We had no idea, but our visiting nurse had put Joli’s name on a number of different trees. Two days before Christmas, our tree had just a few presents underneath. On Christmas Eve, an ambulance pulled into our driveway, and a few EMTs came to our door and delivered about two dozen gift boxes for Joli!! I began sobbing at the sight of all the presents.

While we were so thankful for all the gifts we received from anonymous donors, I still felt an aversion to spending money on anything superficial. Despite our forced frugal living, I still chose to live with very little luxury during Joli’s treatment. And, truth is, we have still kept it up. I rarely shop for anything that we don’t need, and have only recently begun to allow myself a rare treat (hello, new iPhone — though, I was using a phone with no “7” button!)

What I find most difficult, though, is buying “stuff”. Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day, Weddings…. people rarely get gifts from me. (feel free to gasp here) Now, my siblings give me plenty of crap for it, don’t worry. They shake their heads, call me “cheap”, and are embarrassed by my non-gift-giving policy. But, I just can’t bring myself to buy things for people who already have basements, attics and bedrooms full of “stuff.” I think of all the people who have nothing — whether by choice or by circumstance — and it pains me to buy yet another toy for a kid who already has bins of toys.

My exception to the rule? Buying a thank you gift. If someone has done something so amazing that words cannot even express my gratitude, I truly enjoy surprising them with a little thank you gift. Honestly, that’s quite possibly my only exception. I find such joy in buying a thank you gift for someone!

My gift aversion has also helped me to discover more environmentally friendly ways to give. I love using Freecycle. If you haven’t gotten into Freecycle yet, I encourage you to find the one in your local town/city. Unlike Craigslist, people who join Freecycle agree that they will not charge (nor re-sell) for any items. It’s a way to keep waste out of our landfills and to be a resource for your local community. I’ve Freecycled clothes, books, baby gear, etc., and it has felt so good knowing that I’m a) not contributing to landfill waste, b) helping out someone directly in my town, and c) giving of what I already have as opposed to spending money on more junk.

So, how does this all fit in with this upcoming season of gift gluttony? Find ways to give to a friend/kid that limit the amount of waste in our landfills and in people’s homes. For kids, help teach them that time and love are much more valuable than plastic and wrapping. Here are some ideas of things to give:

1. A “day out” with you where you treat for lunch and a movie

2. A membership to a local museum

3. A book that you’ve found on Freecycle or at a book exchange

4. something homemade that uses existing materials in your house (a friend had her 6-year old son make me an awesome sea shell magnet for my birthday! it’s one of my favorite gifts so far!)

On the receiving end? See beyond a “new” gift. Help kids to redefine what it means to feel loved and to be shown love. More presents does not equal more love.

My family is far from perfect. We, too, have a basement full of toys  — many of which have not been played with since they were opened. We have toy boxes overflowing with dolls, stuffed animals, and books. We have a doll house (the combined gift for my 2 girls last year) which was played with for about a month and then retired to the cold basement. Every time I go downstairs to do laundry, I feel embarrassed by how much my children have, and am reminded of how little others have. I mentally add up all the money (spent on toys) that is sitting in that basement and can’t help but think of how many trips to the hospital that could pay for, how many nights in the parking garage, how many bottles of Pediasure, and how many co-payments that could have covered for any of our cancer families. I think of all the fundraisers we have done this past year to help ease the financial burden of some of our cancer friends, and think that there is at least that amount of money in just ONE of the toy boxes.

My kids like toys. I like a nice treat. We all deserve something that makes us feel good. And, in this spirit of the season, I encourage you to find ways to share love, time, interest, and hope in ways that transcend plastic, wrapping, and those damn twistie ties that hold the toys to the cardboard.

If we can teach our children that what’s on the inside is more valuable than what’s on the outside, we give them some of the greatest gifts: the gift of believing they are worth our time and our love.

What gifts will you give your children? Your friends? Your family this year?

On Growing Up

Who the heck is that girl? Who IS that??

photo(4)

circa 1993

First off, I can’t tell you how many imaginary vodka tonics I had to down before building up the courage to post my high school senior picture. Yeah, I thought I was the shit back then. And, oddly enough, my hair actually does still look kind of the same (sans the spiral perm, of course). Major differences? Well, gee, let’s see. I suppose we can start with the couple of tens of pounds I’ve gained since I was 17 years old. (side note freak out: I am just realizing that was 17 years ago!!) Someone, pass another bottle of Sky, please?

Why imaginary vodka tonics? Well, as such things have evolved, and thanks to a pretty immature and early tango with alcohol, I no longer choose to drink much anymore. Could be all the alcohol I dumped into my body in a brief amount of years — back when I definitely wasn’t mature enough to handle it — and a few too many alcohol related regrets. Drinks, now, pretty much consist of a sip from Jorge’s glass of wine a few times a month or an occasional drink at a reception.

But, I digress….

Coming up soon, I’m going to be reliving a major part of my high school experience. Think, “Glee” but with sparkly magenta dresses, Aqua Net hair styles, blue eyeshadow, and more jazz hands. Where the brown kids (the 3 of us in the entire choir) had to endure wearing “nude colored uniform nylons” which made the white girls look cute but made dark girls look like chocolate lollipops on little white sticks. Yes, fans, I was in Show Choir. And, I loved it. Like crack, if we had crack in the suburbs. I loved performing, dancing, singing, and warming up as if we were running the NYC marathon. I recall hitting the track – on my own time – so that I could build my stamina for a brief 15 minutes of singing and dancing. Uh-huh.

While there are key things I loved about high school — orchestra, show choir, some of my classes, music competitions — I don’t often look back fondly on those years. Now, as a 34 year old, mother of 3, survivor of a billion medical obstacles, and educator, I sometimes feel embarrassed for my 17 year old self. I was immature, annoying, and insecure. And, like any kid struggling with those issues, I was often mean, petty, catty, gossipy, controlling, and obnoxious. I didn’t know how to be comfortable in my own skin, and so I didn’t know how to connect with people who did. In an effort not to show anyone that I felt like I was worthless, I tried to over compensate by putting other people down and not giving room for other kids to thrive. In the kindest terms, I was ‘not nice.’

College didn’t get much better for me. On one hand, I knew I wasn’t mature enough to be on my own and ended up commuting to a local college my first year. That was definitely a good idea as it forced me to be somewhat a college student, but still enabled allowed me to live in this high school/dependent world. But, seeing all of my friends leave our hometown and have amazing stories to tell about their college experiences only made me feel more insecure. I turned to alcohol. I was desperate to find ways to connect to people. I took a lot of the anxiety out on myself and made far too many unhealthy choices. When sophomore year rolled around, I did feel ready to leave the nest (from a safe distance of only 1 hour and 15 minutes away). I felt myself growing up a little bit more, but still made lots of bad choices.

As a college administrator now, I am always so in awe of my students who really put themselves out there and who demonstrate such maturity. I look at some of them and can’t see myself in them at all. I have students who have studied abroad, who spend more time volunteering in the community than sitting in classes each week, and who know exactly what they want to do with their lives. I work with students who are in college for the sole purpose of creating a better life for their families. I meet with students who possess such a deep level of maturity, of sense-of-self, and of purpose.

Yet, it’s the student who isn’t quite sure what to do, or who is struggling, or who is socially awkward that I’m drawn to the most. I see myself in them. I see the same panic in their eyes that I had. I see the same tenseness in their bodies, the same timidness about their futures. But, this time, I hear the comments that others make about them. I hear the subtle groans that others make when these kids talk or act. And, I can’t help but accept that others had noticed my own awkwardness when I was in college.

Honestly, I can point to the exact time in my life when I finally let go of my insecurities, my awkwardness, and my self-doubt. I was 29. I had just been told that my daughter had cancer. People sometimes look at me funny when I say that “I’m thankful for Joli’s illness” but, it’s so true. It forced me to be genuine. I grew up. From that point on, I never tried to be anything other than what I could be. I gave up my obsession with being the most “perfect” person — popular, thin, brilliant, a size 6, wildly charismatic, effortlessly funny, etc. I finally accepted being just me. And, Me was the only thing I could offer my child. ME was the only thing I could offer myself. I gave up wanting to try so hard to be the best mother, sister, daughter, wife, worker, and just allowed myself to accept the kind of ME that I am. Heh, the funny thing is, that once I gave up trying to be all those things, I started on the path towards being all of those things.

Sound like complacency? I guess it is, sort of. But, I have found great peace in not wanting to “keep up with the Joneses” anymore. I have no desire to out-do anyone, to belittle anyone to lift myself up, nor to be anything but the authentic me. I stopped trying to have the best clothes, the best car, and all that goes with upward status mobility. Yes, that authentic me is way fatter than my 17-year old self. But, the authentic me is also a hell of a lot happier.

I’ve been through hell and back. And, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna get sent back-and-forth a few more times. That’s okay with me.

So, why the anxiety about going back to high school this weekend? First, I don’t think I’ve ever made peace with my 17-year old self. I think I’m still angry at her. Angry that, when I was 17, I didn’t think enough of myself to just love who I was. Angry that I relied on other people and other means to define who I was. Angry that I likely made some people feel horrible so that I could feel better about myself.

I think I need to take some cues from my high school, though. I’m going back to that school for the first time in 17 years. And, I hear it’s gone under lots of renovation and rebuilding. In a notice I received about the weekend, one of the organizers wrote, “Wait until you see the new auditorium!” Healthy dose of symbolism, anyone?

I’m a different person from the girl I was 17 years ago. Half my lifetime ago. Here’s hoping that I can come to peace with who I was, where I have traveled, and who I am today. I’m sure I’ll have to take a deep breath, sit in my car a minute, and brace myself for the insecurity that’s gonna overtake me when I walk into that gym. And, in those moments, I hope to put my arms around those 17-year old thoughts and say, “You did your best. It’s who you were. It’s who you had to be.” Then, I plan on walking into that gym, dancing my much softer/wider/jiggly body that was home to 3 absolutely beautiful babies, singing with happiness, and give thanks for all that my 17-year old self had to overcome in order for me to be who I am today.

To loosen that…

Creating a Welcoming Environment

Creating and Sustaining a Welcoming Environment
So, this is a more work-related type of post, but I thought it was important to put up on To Loosen. Since many folks are struggling with the idea of “creating a welcoming environment”, I thought some To Loosen readers might find it interesting. Cross posted at Intercultural Happenings.

What is a “welcoming environment”? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Who is a part of this environment? Who shapes it? Who is affected by it? These are all questions that need to be explored in order to best create and sustain an environment that respects the diverse experiences within our community.

I’ve often been asked, “I’d like to make a welcoming environment; I just don’t know how”. Or, I’m sometimes challenged by people who say, “But, I do have a welcoming environment. I welcome all people.”

To the latter, my challenge back is to say, “Tell me how. Tell me what you do that makes your environment welcoming to all people.” Answers such as, “Well, anyone can come in” or “anyone can use this space” or “I never turn anyone away” often come up. But, unfortunately, those aren’t aspects that necessarily create a welcoming environment.

Now, some have not been bold enough to say it, but I imagine this conversation occurring, “Well, I don’t call anyone any racist names when they walk through the door” or “I don’t assume they don’t speak English” or “I don’t assume that students of color are here on affirmative action.” That’s great. Keep it up. But that still does not create a welcome environment.

So, what does?

I can speak from my own experiences as well as relay some of the stories from our students on campus.

STEPS THAT COST NOTHING:

1. See me. When I walk by you, do you say “hello”? When we see each other, do you shake my hand? Do you look me in the eye? Or, do you treat me like I am invisible to you? People of color on a predominantly white campus experience this incredible irony each day – we stick out like a sore thumb; yet, we are treated like we are invisible. If you want to create a welcoming environment, begin by actually recognizing that people of color exist.

2. Make a connection with me. No, I don’t mean take me out to lunch or even ask me about my family when we should be talking about business. I mean, participate in what is meaningful for me and my community. If I am a speaker somewhere on campus, come to the program. If there is a program/panel/lecture/film where you know people of color are going to be in attendance, go to the program. Get some face time. Because, if we see you there, we might make the actual assumption that you care about what is meaningful for us. Or, if you just aren’t able to attend any of the 75+ things that I host all year, then send me an email to say you wish you could go but just can’t make it.

3. Speak to me with respect. If you think I am intelligent, talk to me like I’m intelligent. Assume that I am smart, talented, and here because I worked hard to be here. See that I am capable of achieving above and beyond your own expectations of me. Please avoid talking to me in a way that you think I should stereotypically sound like.

4. Engage me in conversation. The best way to learn about me is to talk to me. Ask me if I’m comfortable sharing my history, my experiences, and my goals for the future; and, in most cases, I will respond positively. If you are genuinely curious about me, I am more likely to share my story with you and connect with you.

5. Understand that I might be outside my comfort zone. For our students of color who were raised in their cultural majority, they say one of the reasons they chose Stonehill is the opportunity to be in the minority. They also say that one of the biggest challenges is to be in the minority for 4 years. For our first generation college students, they might not possess the same familiarity with college lingo, procedures, and processes that their college legacy peers do. So, create an environment that allows them to experience this newness with ease.

6. Show non-judgmental sensitivity. “Unlike other students here, I don’t have the same economic privilege.” For students who are major financial contributors to their own education or to their family, they are not as easily able to accept unpaid internships, volunteer work, or opportunities that do not help support their financial situation. Some have avoided this conversation with professionals because they do not want to have to admit their situations publicly. Showing non-judgmental sensitivity, combined with problem solving to help them achieve their goals, is important to creating a trustful relationship with you.

7. Find where they are most comfortable, and go there. Many people in marginalized groups have found their “comfort spot”. Rather than wonder why they are not coming to you, go to them. Ask to attend a meeting of a group you are interested in connecting with on a more meaningful basis. Look for where they hang out, eat, do homework, meet, and find a way to non-invasively engage in discussion.

8. Hear me. Know that it’s hard for me to come to you with a complaint or a suggestion. Too many people have said that people of color “play the race card”, so in an effort to NOT do that, I most likely will say nothing. But, if I know that you will hear me without making judgments about me based on my identity, I am more likely to trust you and what you do.

9. Recognize that I experience this world as a person of color. I don’t want you to “judge me by my skin”, but I do want you to recognize that other people sometimes do. And, I’ve spent a lot of years working to prove that I am MORE than just skin color. However, my skin color does “tint” (pun totally intended!) how I experience the world.

STEPS THAT REQUIRE SUPPORT:
1. Provide opportunities for me to see myself reflected in what you do. Do you include people of color on panels that you host? Do you bring in guest speakers that have diverse backgrounds? Do you implement a component of cultural awareness and education into your courses, lectures, or discussions? A great way to create an environment that welcomes all people is to include all people.

2. Build your base of contacts who are from diverse backgrounds. The truth is, good mentors are good mentors for all. And yet, students of color often look for mentors of color because there is information that is shared about their backgrounds that is relevant and important to their experiences. One black, male student shared “I never go to certain programs because I know they aren’t going to say anything relevant about me and my experiences.” To create a welcoming environment, individuals need to see that your initiatives include their voices, too.

3. Add culturally relevant visual representation to your office or space. This is not permission to now go and buy up all the Malcolm X, Vincent Chin, and George Lopez posters online. However, it might mean adding a multicultural calendar to your space or an “Ally” sticker to your door (if you are one). It means subscribing to diverse publications, magazines, or resources that can be placed in your waiting room or in your office (and, hopefully, you will have read those, too!).

4. If you are not seeing a particular group using your services or participating in your programs, ask them why. It’s not enough to just blame them for not being interested or apathetic. People may be actively choosing not to go to you or use your services for particular reasons. First, assess your data. What are the ratios in relation to the population? What is your baseline? What is your goal? What informs that goal? Then, as the group what they would like to see and/or what they need.

5. Know that it takes time. Building relationships and trust take time. If you haven’t been actively working on creating a culture of inclusion (as opposed to just saying “sure, I’m welcoming!”), then the work has just started. It can take months, sometimes years, to see progress. But, if you give up, that word spreads fast, too. Stick with your initiatives and, if your goals and steps are right, you’ll see progress soon enough!

What’s So Hard About Teaching Truth?

Wow, sometimes post topics just fall into my lap — or, fall into my Facebook, to be more accurate. Seriously, what did we all socially write about before people’s Facebook comments, status updates, and links?

Picture 2This one comes courtesy of a simple comment about “Columbus” (this being, ya know, Columbus’s big DAY and all….)

A friend status-ed about loving Columbus. So, I bit, and commented that I hope my friend loves the day off and not actually what Columbus did.  That led to the response that the teacher does teach a socially responsible unit on Columbus (yay!! Give it up for one more teacher who teaches the truth!). Another person then asked what Columbus did. I, unable to resist, simply stated that “Columbus gets credit for discovering a place that already had people, language, culture, traditions, etc. That would be like me walking into your apartment, saying that I founded it, and then making you go get me a drink.”

A response came along — the kind you hope for when you’re in a blogging rut — with something like this: “Yeah, but how much violent-invading history are we really gonna teach 3rd graders, or their parents, who want everything to be sugary and nice?” I actually agreed here because I thought the commenter was heading in the “yes, and therefore we shouldn’t teach Columbus=Discoverer”. But, alas, the commenter wasn’t making that point. The commenter then proceeded to say that the “(n)ative (p)eople in Plimouth were rude and off-putting with their political agendas worn like a giant chip on their shoulders.” I swear, I can’t make this stuff up….

Giant.Chip. On.Their.Shoulders? Yeah, there sure is a chip; and that chip is called “we were having a grand old time, then random people came, stole our land, killed our people, and then told stories about how we shared some turkey, jokes, and smiles.” I’d be rude, too, if kids dressed up like my people, athletic teams mock my elders, and people took tours of my land every November to see a rock.

But, really, my question goes back to this statement: “How much violent-invading history are we going to teach 3rd graders?” Right, exactly. So, let’s not teach it. If you don’t want to teach the true history of the First People, then at least let’s not teach Columbus=Savior. Okay, if you don’t want to teach the atrocities of the Pilgrim/Native times, at least let’s stop teaching that the Pilgrims saved the Native people.

You can teach the truth in age appropriate ways. After all, those populations and peoples are/were MORE than the events that happened to them. Picture 3Teach the cultures as they existed before colonization. Do work beyond what is given in just the most basic (and empty) of textbooks. If you teach 3rd grade, then make sure you do your own age appropriate (adult) homework. Pick up Howard Zinn’s book. Read Ronald Takaki’s work. If you teach, read James Loewen. Challenge the education that we received growing up. Teach that Columbus didn’t end up where he thought he was, and that’s why he landed where he did, calling Native people “Indians.” (Heck, I’m pissed that the nickname my sister gave me when I was 7 years old has still stuck with me; Imagine being stuck with the same nickname for, oh, 500+years!) Teach that Europeans did not discover the world; that people existed long before colonization; that colonization, itself, relates to a lot of the playground antics that exist outside during elementary school recess.

So, what’s so hard about teaching the truth? These days, teaching the truth takes some effort. While many textbooks are finally telling stories other than just European history, many still do not. And, for most teachers in my generation and older, we grew up on a very different telling of history. We were educated during  a time when social perspective was rarely challenged. But, today, now, there is an emphasis on teaching the truth. And, indeed, as most historical truths are a result of “violent-invading-forces”, we need to teach that there exists different truths. Don’t we always tell our kids there are “always two sides to every story?” Playground rules, right?

Teaching the truth also teaches our children to think critically. They learn that there is a perspective other than their own. They learn to think bigger than a situation. They learn to seek the truth rather than just accept the truth. By learning both/all sides, they learn to engage in conflict resolution and mediation.

My kids are little. At least few times a day, they grab from one another, they tease one another, they take credit (or blame) from one another. They trick one another into doing their chores. If someone gets a treat, a sibling will almost predictably try to distract then steal a piece of that treat. And, at least once a week, one of my girls will kick the other girl out of their shared room. Sound historically familiar?

We end up having talks about these actions. And, I know they won’t end anytime soon (after all, puberty and teenage years are still a bit away…). The lessons learned don’t involve violence. Rather, we talk about respect. We talk about fairness. Justice. Equality. Kindness. Why can’t these truths be taught in terms of history?

They can.

They should.

They must.

So, let’s realize that teaching the truth is possible. Let’s realize that we can teach a sugary version of the truth that is also historically responsible. Let’s realize that the “chip-on-the-shoulder” is usually a result of the truth being withheld. If people were spreading lies about you, about your friends, about your family, you would be pretty pissed off, too. When you hear that a people/person is pissed off about something that historically has been misrepresented about them, ask why. Listen to the answer, and you likely will be listening to their truth.

(hat tip to my friend Jenn who teaches with this book to help her students understand the different stories surrounding Columbus)

What are some age appropriate specific resources that other anti-racist parents and/or responsible educators are using in their homes or classrooms? Please share! Make teaching the truth a whole lot easier!

Teaching About Those in Need

A few Sundays a month, my family and I drive into the Boston area for some dim sum. Even though we live in one of the largest cities in our state, we rarely encounter homeless people and/or families in our immediate area. Yet, whenever we drive into the city, there are two places where we are sure to see someone — often the same people — on the street asking for some assistance.

Because we have to drive into the city frequently (doctor’s appointments, mostly), my children have grown up with these familiar faces. Though, the closest they have really come to them is through our car window.

In my younger years living in the lower east side of New York City, I worked with a young man named Peter who was very active in advocacy work for the homeless in lower Manhattan. As you might imagine, homelessness is a huge issue in New York City. My co-worker not only volunteered in homeless shelters, he was frequently found sitting next to people just talking over a cups of coffee he had purchased for the two (or more) of them. Peter worked in social policy change to gain rights for the homeless. He focused on both the large scale systemic issues as well as the more intimate and personal issues.

I had the opportunity to talk with Peter about the best ways to help those who are homeless. I shared that I often wrestled with the practice of just “dropping coins in a cup” versus buying food and/or giving a blanket or a coat to someone in need. Peter told me that the best use of my money was in the homeless shelters, and the best things I could do for a person were a) treat the person as a person, and not just as a poor person; b) purchase a meal; and c) share a meal. Peter’s words stuck with me.

A few years later, my sister told me about a friend she had met in her PhD program in California. This woman was single, but had recently been divorced and relocated to California from Georgia. As my sister and this woman grew closer, the woman disclosed that she had lived on the streets for a few months. My sister, her classmate in a prestigious PhD program, was shocked. Across from her was a brilliant musician, a promising academic scholar, and a put-together woman. She had a hard time believing this woman had been homeless. Because, as with many of us who have not had to experience homelessness, she thought that the a homeless person was  “dirty, down-and-out, alcoholics or drug users, products of bad decisions, unmotivated, etc….”. Homeless people were not supposed to be PhD students, right?

My sister’s friend went on to tell her story. She had been happily married. She participated in neighborhood block parties where people raved about her macaroni and cheese. She was a musician who practiced hours a day. Over the course of her marriage, she noticed changes in her husband. He began to disappear for long periods of time. She had not been very interested in their shared bank account but began to take notice when checks were coming back with insufficient funds. Before she knew it, her husband had gambled away their savings, was thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt, and then, he was gone. She had nothing left. There was not enough money to go anywhere, so she packed up a few things and began to sleep in the car. She would move the car every so often, but eventually realized that moving the car took gas — and she didn’t have money to fill the tank.

My sister’s friend resorted to asking for help on the streets. While money was helpful, she would tell us, she really needed food. She needed water. She needed warmth, safety, and security. As an attractive woman on the streets, her environment was rarely safe, and she lived for months in constant fear.

Meeting her and hearing her story completely changed my views of “who is homeless.” Especially in our recent economy, homelessness has many different faces. Different ages, different races, different family structures. The local hotel near our house is now full — not from tourists, but rather with families who have lost their homes. Friends who are college graduates are unemployed and living on public assistance; the very assistance they once proudly and ignorantly criticized as “for people who are too lazy to work.” They now have changed views as to who needs public assistance.

Yesterday, my daughter lost her tooth. And, under the pillow, she received a small sum of money. Her request was to go to the store and pick out a gift. After she had paid for her gift, she got her change and put it in her pocket. After dinner, my daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, I have extra money here. Can we give it to the man-with-no-home next time we go to the city?” When I was her age, the heavy clicking sound of the lock button would ring in my dad’s car whenever we approached a person on the corner. I was taught to be afraid. I was taught to look away. I was taught to ignore the stranger who needed assistance.

I am so glad that my child refuses to learn the lessons of my past. Rather, she looks for people in need and calls me to action.

“Mom, it’s starting to get colder. Can you remember to put the box of granola bars in our car tomorrow? I don’t want to forget to give it to anyone who is hungry,” she said as she was getting ready for bed. “Oh, and maybe some blankets, warm things, and some towels.”

She gets it. She gets that life is bigger than our own. She understands that people have needs greater than ours. She knows that she has a responsibility to care for her fellow people on this planet. She is not afraid to look; she is not afraid to feel; she is not afraid to care.

I truly think that having a physical disability has been a gift to our family. My daughter knew, from a very early age, what it felt like to have people stare at her. She has also experienced something worse — the feeling of people treating her like she’s invisible because they aren’t sure what to make of her. Because my children have met people who look very different from the mainstream norm, they gravitate towards people who don’t quite fit in. They are learning how to genuinely acknowledge that people are people; and that we must treat people above the labels we give them.

As we come upon the most ironic of seasons — the Season of Giving and the “Season of Excessive Spending”, what gifts will you give your children? What gifts will last beyond batteries and attention spans? What ways have you examined the lessons you were taught, and the lessons you will choose to pass on to your own children?

POST SCRIPT: Please check out this beautifully written entry with connections to the responsibility we have as Christians in the aide of the homeless.

OKAY, ANOTHER POST SCRIPT: I’m so appalled. In my desperate search to find some poignant pictures of people who are homeless, I found far too many photos of people making fun of the homeless. Seriously, we live in a twisted world…