The Trauma of Racism

(Click to hear audio. Please note, text includes several links that I do not refer to in the audio.)

Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges last week — he killed George Floyd and will serve time for this crime. As I was listening to the verdicts, I felt “At last — one small step toward justice.” And then I became aware that before the verdict had even been read, a fifteen year old girl in Columbus, Ohio had called the police for help and was instead shot and killed by an officer within moments of his arrival on the scene.

Yes, the girl had a knife.Yes, the scene was chaotic. Still, did a fifteen year old girl have to die?

Is there a way for police officers to arrive at a scene and de-escalate a situation, even after weapons have been drawn?Are law enforcement teams trained in trauma-informed procedures that they might utilize when responding to traumatic situations? Is their goal to control and subdue or de-escalate and restore? How might this scene have played out differently if the goal was restoration? Officers may still have arrived with their hands on their guns — a knife was drawn and visible after all — but might they have found a way, short of death, to separate the young women involved in the altercation? Might they have secured the knife? Could they then have found the space to ask, What happened? We got your call, and we’re here to help. Fill us in. What’s going on?

Might Ma’Khia Bryant have had a chance to say why she was holding that knife, why she was lunging at someone with it? Why she had reached out to the police for support?

Look, law enforcement can’t be easy. I can’t imagine how complicated and stressful — even traumatic — it must be to arrive at a scene where violence is in progress. I have no idea what it feels like to have a gun on one hip and a taser on the other. I can’t fathom the impact of such day in and day out stress on the body.

Researchers, however, have studied trauma and its impact — how cortisol and adrenaline, though crucial in moments of crisis, can wreak havoc on the body during periods of sustained or ongoing trauma — the kind that law officers witness every day. Costello, Wachtel, and Wachtel, three practitioner-researchers in the field of education (The Restorative Practices Handbook) have used such research to inform strategies that have been impactful in mitigating undesirable behavior and restoring problematic relationships. Is it possible that such strategies might be replicated or adapted for use in law enforcement and beyond?

Isn’t it safe to acknowledge at this point that large swaths of the general public have experienced trauma? Research has shown that one out of six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, one in seven children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the last year, and one out of five students report being bullied in school. Trauma, it seems, is ubiquitous. Yet, even if we are aware of widespread trauma, it may be difficult to measure the pervasiveness of trauma in communities of color where many live with the daily fear of violence, the impact of systemic racism, and what trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem calls “the historical and current traumatic impact of racism on the body.” For generations — for centuries — nonwhites have been subjected to repeated traumas, many of which are recorded in history.

We could go back to colonial days to look at the ways in which Native Americans were traumatized by the colonists who showed up first needing assistance after a long and certainly traumatic sea voyage on the heals of their own traumatic othering experiences in Europe, having been persecuted themselves to the extent that they were willing to board a ship powered only by the wind to travel for months to a land where they hoped to find liberty but certainly no family, no existing structures in which they might live, and God only knows what dangers. Native Americans were at times helpful to the settlers but also subsequently used, dehumanized, brutalized, and all but exterminated in the colonists’ attempts to overcome their own trauma and secure their own livelihood.

In their further attempts to create and attain the American Dream, white Americans engaged in the slave trade by which they participated in or sanctioned the abduction of Africans from their own homes. These Black humans were shackled and chained like animals by white humans, the likes of which they had never seen before, crammed into overcrowded holds of ships, and transported via their own perilous and traumatic months-long journey. Once on North American soil, those who survived the journey were then bought and sold, beaten and abused, raped, and forced to work to secure the prosperity of their owners.

After hundreds of years of this type of existence, when slavery had been outlawed, the trauma persisted in the bodies of both white and Black Americans. The dehumanization — the othering — of Black bodies was hardwired into the fabric of the nation, and it was perpetuated through Jim Crow laws such as segregated schools, restrooms, bus seating, etc., not to mention the racist beliefs that fueled hateful speech, intimidation, lynchings, and the like.

Still today, in 21st century America, we see racist practices that persist in education, health care, criminal justice, housing, etc. Centuries after the colonists arrived on the shores of this continent, the mistreatment of people of color in the pursuit of the white man’s American dream continues to be elemental to this country. Not only Native American and Black, but also Asian and Hispanic blood has been shed; bodies of all kinds of colors have been dehumanized in the making of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Resmaa Menakem suggests that these many traumas and others like them produced biological responses that continue to live in our bodies — not just Black bodies or brown bodies, but white bodies, too. We all carry the trauma of our collective history in our bodies. All of us have been shaped by the racism of this country. All of us believe and feel things about race as a result of the “historical and current trauma of racism”.

So when a police officer arrives on the scene to find a 15 year old black girl lunging at someone with a knife, he interprets that in his body much differently than he would if he arrived to find a 15 year old white girl lunging at someone with a knife.

Did you see the difference in your mind? I did. And that, my friends, is racism.

And because this racism — this dehumanization — lives in our bodies, in our minds, in our societal ethos, we continue to traumatize one another. And the impact of the trauma multiplies and spreads, a sickness hurting everyone it touches.

When are we going to decide it’s time to deal with this hundreds-years-old disease?

When are we going to create the space in which we can turn to take a different way? When will we take the time to come into a circle, to share openly with one another what happened, what we were thinking, what impact our actions had on one another, and what actions would begin to make things right (Costello, et al)?

Can you imagine the healing that might happen if we were willing, in small pockets across the country, to start this practice — not a one and done act, but an ongoing practice of confession, repentance, and restoration? Wouldn’t we be partnering with God in His work of reconciliation?

Isn’t that the most loving way we could spend our lives?

What does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8

The Camera’s View

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The camera can’t catch everything.

Over the weekend, a friend sent me a photo to show me how she was spending her evening. In her shot, I could see the television screen and a Piston’s game in progress; I could see her polished toes propped up in front of her, but I couldn’t see her face or who she was watching with. She showed me what she wanted me to see — just a slice of the whole.

Media cameras give us a slice, too. They use selected images and create a neatly packaged narrative to create a story about what’s happening in the world, and while a picture paints a thousand words, actual stories with all their nuances, often take thousands of words to write.

Although we’ve been watching news of Covid-19 for 10 months and we’ve seen images of sickness and death every, we have not seen the true devastation caused by this disease. The screens in our living rooms can’t show us the pain of the 375,000 families who’ve lost loved ones since March. They can’t convey the stress, the weariness, the weight that our health care workers have been carrying. They can’t transport the heaviness of heart of those who are lifting bodies into refrigerated storage units because the morgues are full.

The camera gives a glimpse, but it’s can’t convey the whole.

Last Spring, along with shots of the empty streets of downtown Manhattan and the long lines of people waiting for food, the camera also held its focus for over eight minutes as a police officer kneeled on the neck of a man while officers stood by watching him die. It turned its gaze to another man out for an afternoon jog and watched as he was chased down by men in trucks, assaulted, and killed in the middle of the street. Not long after, the camera found in its frame a man taking the last steps of his life moments before a police officer shot seven bullets into his back severing his spinal cord and rendering him paralyzed.

It showed us these moments when everything changed, but it hasn’t shown us the ongoing impact in the lives of the people who loved those men.

It hasn’t shown us the grieving families — how they struggle to face another day in their forever-altered reality, knowing that those who inflicted violence on their loved ones get to keep right on living, some not facing any consequences at all. The camera hasn’t focused on that.

Throughout the pandemic, we have watched scenes of citizens responding to circumstances that seem unjust. We’ve seen outraged masses demonstrating against police brutality and others infuriated at orders to stay at home and wear a mask. The cameras have marched along, capturing images, and creating narratives.

And this week cameras were in the crowd as the leader of the free world — a man who has never experienced police brutality or had to stand in a line to get food, who has never been forced to stay at home or wear a mask — stood on the mall in Washington, DC, dressed in a fine suit and freshly coiffed, and spoke to thousands who adore him, who view him as the answer to society’s ills, who believe him to be a man of God and a fighter for the people. Cameras recored as he spoke to these people who had travelled across the country at his bidding, paying with their own hard-earned money, or charging flights and hotel rooms on credit cards they may or may not be able to pay back. They were dressed as warriors and carrying weapons; they brought strategies and tactics and stood there ready when he told them to march. The President of the United States said “you can’t be weak” but you must “save our democracy.” And, after listening to him decry our nation for over an hour, these thousands of citizens followed his orders and marched. The camera caught them screaming war cries, pushing police out of the way, breaking windows, climbing walls, destroying property, and terrifying the nation.

Not long after, the camera showed most of them walking away without consequence — not with knees on their necks, not with bullets in their backs, not chased down by vehicles and killed in the street.

And since Wednesday, as we’ve heard cries for justice, for impeachment, for accountability and watched the tapes of that attack played and replayed, we’ve been tempted to shake our fists at our screens, shouting at the ineptitude of the local and federal governments that respond unequally to the actions of black and white bodies, at the corruption of politicians, and at the devastating division in our country. And certainly, we are justified to do so, but all of our shouting and fist-shaking will not, of itself, cause transformation.

However, if we dare, we might turn away from the camera and its limited gaze to see that the issues plaguing the United States are both national and local. They are both political and personal. The same divisions we saw through a camera lens last week, and that we have been seeing for the last several years, are present in our own communities, in our own friend groups, in our own families, and in our own selves. We are a nation — a people — infected with selfishness, pride, racism, and self-righteousness.

And, as our pastor, Marcus Lane, said this morning, “We cannot confront evil in the world without confronting it in ourselves.” No, we sure can’t.

We will not change as a culture until we, as individuals, take intentional steps toward change — toward self-examination, confession, repentance, and walking in a new way. It’s going to take a collective effort to turn the dial, and to right our course.

We’re going to have to step away from our screens and the limited view of life that they display. We’re going to have to take a broader view, putting down our finger-pointing judgmental attitudes and extending not only consequences but grace to those who’ve gotten it wrong, including ourselves. We’re going to have to open up space so that as those around us try to change course, they will find the room to do so.

Look, we are all guilty here. We are all complicit — we’ve all contributed to this very tragic narrative.

We can no longer deny that much of what the camera shows us not only illustrates but perpetuates systemic racism and the privilege of the few. We saw with our own eyes that among the insurrectionists, who were mostly white, were those who carried Confederate flags and wore t-shirts emblazoned with anti-Semitic and racist messages. It is nauseating to see such hatred so blatantly on display — right on the cameras –but really, that’s where it should be, out where we can see it, because for too long it has been carried surreptitiously inside our hearts.

I’ve been idly watching this narrative for too long.

I feel compelled to take an inward look to face the evil within myself so that I will be better equipped to call it out in our world and to give the camera something new to look at. We’ve got to right this ship, friends. We’ve got to change the trajectory of our story.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24

Intending for Change

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Many of us enthusiastically waved goodbye to 2020 with a hopeful eye toward the new year, but if the first few days of 2021 are any indication, all that’s changed is the calendar. The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over — we topped 350,000 deaths over the weekend, and the vaccine distribution is way behind schedule. Political divisions are stronger than ever — just two weeks before the inauguration of our next president, the sitting president and many governmental leaders, not to mention a large number of loyal citizens, are still attempting to contest election results. Millions across the country are struggling financially — though some got a little relief from a $600 deposit in their bank accounts this weekend, those who need it the most likely won’t see checks for weeks or even months. And certainly the racism that plagues our nation and flared undeniably in 2020 is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

Last Monday in my blog (post here), I wondered if now that we’ve more clearly seen — thanks to the pandemic — our systemic failures, our economic inequities, and our blatant racism, we would be content to continue on the course that we have been on as a country. Are we ok with what we have seen? Or are we motivated to make change?

You might be tempted to think that any attempts at change would be futile — our systems are so established, our paths so forged — how can we expect transformation? Certainly we can’t reverse climate change, eradicate poverty and homelessness, right the wrongs of racial injustice, or even get rid of Covid-19 with the flip of a switch.

And it’s true, the idea that change could happen over night — that we might restore the polar ice caps, provide housing and jobs to all the unemployed and underemployed, make up for the all injustices that have been committed against people of color, or even immunize 80% of Americans within the bounds of 2021 — is fantasy-thinking even for the most hopeful among us.

However, it would be criminal for us to throw up our hands and say, “It is what it is. Nothing can be done.” Because, my friends, something can be done.

We may not be able to flip a switch, but we can certainly turn a dial.

I have been learning about the power of dial-turning through my years-long continuing journey to health. In January of 2013, I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease which has been characterized by limited mobility and decreased energy. The severity of symptoms led me to leave my teaching career in 2014, presumably forever.

However, that summer I started making one small change after another. First I took a long rest, then I landed within a network of very supportive friends, altered my diet, found a team of health care advocates, and began daily yoga and walking. Week after week and month after month I continued despite my inability to see much progress. However, recently, six and a half years into the process, I was looking through a pile of photographs when I spotted one from just a few summers ago that took my breath away. I could barely recognize myself! I vividly remembered the day it was taken — one in which I experienced pain, limited mobility, and the ever-present need to rest.

I am no longer that person.

A few seemingly small changes and the power of our restorative God have transformed my health and enabled me to re-enter my teaching career after I was certain I was finished. My choices didn’t flip a switch, but they have certainly turned the dial.

Change, restoration, healing, and progress are possible, but they don’t usually happen over night.

While we long for sweeping transformation right this very minute — that we could eradicate the coronavirus, feed all the hungry, or have affordable high quality health care for everyone in our country, for example — these kinds of changes are going to take some time. However, if we are willing to take small intentional actions, over time we will begin to see change. Who knows, maybe a few years down the road, we’ll be watching a documentary on the Covid-19 pandemic and we won’t even recognize ourselves.

God can do anything, but He often invites His people to get involved in making change.

So, where to start? In my last post, I asked you to consider what you’ve seen over the last several months that just didn’t sit right. What bothered you? Where is God drawing your eye?

For me, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor were personal. These folks, in my mind, represented students I’ve worked with over the years and their families — people I know and love. I watched in horror as their lives were senselessly and abruptly ended. How could I live in a country that so devalued human lives and not do something about it?

Witnessing those events and the slow and inadequate response of our justice system dared me to return to the classroom. Wanting to tangibly demonstrate that I believe Black Lives Matter, I pursued positions in communities of color that have been historically underserved, and I got one.

I have been so excited to 1) be back in the classroom, even if it is a Zoom room, and 2) interact with students and their families with respect, professionalism, and empathy. However, after four months with my Black and Muslim students, I have also become more acutely aware of the racism that lives deep in my bones. It catches me off guard sometimes, and I am horrified to find myself making assumptions and judgments that have roots in ideologies that I — that we — have been learning all of our lives.

So, now that I have seen this — this racism that continues to live inside of me — what do I intend to do? Well, I have a few intentions that, with the grace of God, might cause some slow, incremental change — that just might turn the dial.

First, one of the ladies in my “breakfast club” suggested that we all take an 8-week facilitated course designed to help us interrogate our own beliefs and to expose inherent racism. Six middle-aged white women have agreed to enter a safe space, to be vulnerable, and to take an introspective view that might challenge our long-held beliefs.

At work, I have asked to join a process-oriented group of colleagues — Black, white, and Muslim, administrators and educators, experienced and novice — who will be invited to share stories, examine experiences, and engage in conversations about race. Our goal is to expose our racial biases and to challenge them so that we can better walk beside each other and our students.

With members of our church community, my husband and I are committing to an 8-week facilitated course on ways that we, as Christians, can join in anti-racist work.

These are beginnings — they are first steps. We will likely not see big sweeping changes immediately. However, participating in such conversations might shift attitudes, reshape language, and perhaps even transform beliefs and behaviors. It’s a start.

Way back in the fall of 2014, I had very little flexibility or strength. If I bent at the waist, I could not touch my toes; I could not hold a plank for any length of time, let alone do a pushup. I felt frustrated in yoga and Pilates classes because others around me seemed much stronger, much more flexible. However, one instructor after another reminded me that I had to start somewhere and that I would see progress over time. So, I kept showing up, doing the best that I could, even when it felt like I was making no progress at all. Six years later, touching my toes is still a work in progress, but I can sure hold a plank and do several push-ups. It didn’t happen with the flip of a switch, but I have gradually been able to turn the dial.

I am wondering if you might be willing to make a few small changes this year? Maybe you were moved by the economic disparities that surfaced in 2020 or by the strain on our health care or criminal justice systems. Maybe it is heavy on your heart that all the PPE we’ve used this year is going to end up in a landfill somewhere. Whatever your eye has been drawn to, I wonder if you are feeling like it’s time to take action.

None of us is responsible for fixing all of the world’s ills, but perhaps each of us can find a few small ways to nudge the dial.

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.

Colossians 3:23 NLT

p.s. If you have an idea for how you might nudge the dial, leave a comment, either on this blog, or wherever you found it — Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Let’s inspire each other as we lean into the turn and change the course of this ship.

Coronavirus Diary #24: Setting Intentions for 2021

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked at back last year’s New Year’s blog post (link to post here) — what was I hoping for as I said goodbye to 2019 and looked forward into 2020?

I was fresh off the holidays. All of our people had gathered, and though we had had our tense moments, we had also had moments of mundane togetherness, laughter, and even joy. We were nearing the end of a long, long season of grief, and wanting to move forward differently, I took the year 2020 (20/20) as an invitation to think about vision and sight. I was praying to see things differently. I had missed so much in the soldiering years. Moving forward, I wanted to see — to really see.

I wrote:

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

“Ask and ye shall receive.”

If 2020 offered us anything, it was an opportunity to notice the essential and to comprehend the meaningful. Yes, it’s been a year full of imminent danger, but if we dare, we can also see all kinds of possibility.

Remember how we were plodding through January and February, business as usual, unaware of the depth of the disruption that was about to occur? Remember how we grumbled about getting up early to scrape the ice off the car, about the extra slow commute, and about the coworker who just couldn’t seem to respect our personal space?

Remember how we would run to the grocery store over lunch hour and munch on a snack we’d just purchased on our way out the door? Remember how we offered an open bag of chips to a colleague who enthusiastically grabbed a handful and shared with the person standing next to her? Remember how normal this was?

And look at us now — even when we are wearing our masks, we find ourselves reflexively moving back to allow for six feet of space, we bump elbows if we dare to touch at all, and we glance at each other with suspicion, wondering if either is unknowingly carrying the virus, if this will be the interaction that makes us sick.

Why? Because we’ve seen like we’ve never seen before.

We’ve seen the destructive path of the coronavirus — the death toll in the United States above 330,000, hospitals across the country at capacity, refrigerated trucks serving as morgues.

We’ve seen, in the midst of this health crisis, the comorbidities of archaic infrastructure, financial instability, and centuries-old systemic racism. We’ve seen how quickly our supply chain can be disrupted, leaving us all wondering why we are out of toilet paper, flour, and personal protective equipment. We’ve seen the financial devastation as millions across the country apply for unemployment, wait in line all day to get food, and face imminent eviction. In contrast, we’ve seen the financial excess of our nation’s billionaires who’ve actually “increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic so far” (Business Insider). We’ve seen people of color not only disproportionately impacted by this disease (Harvard Medical School) but less likely to get quality care and much more likely to be living in poverty, targeted by law enforcement, and incarcerated for the same crimes than white people.

If our eyes were opened in 2020, if our vision cleared, then what we saw was a country that has a lot more to worry about than the deadly virus that has traversed the globe. We’ve asked ourselves about the integrity of the news media and the reliability of science. We’ve wondered how much we value our health care workers, our teachers, our postal workers, and our other essential personnel. We’ve become more aware of how the structures of our country have shaped our ideologies, and we’re beginning to see our racism, our bias, and the ways that we ourselves perpetuate these systems and these beliefs.

And now that we have seen, what will we do? That, for me, is the question of 2021.

What do we intend to do about the things that we have seen?

This morning, as we have done most Sunday mornings since March, my husband and I logged into a Zoom room on one laptop while we streamed our church’s worship service on another. Members of our small group community meet in the Zoom room every Sunday to “go” to church. We sit in our own living rooms watching the service, singing, and praying “together.” Then, after the service, we unmute ourselves and chat over “coffee” as we would if we were physically meeting together.

Today’s conversation ranged from how was your Christmas to how are we managing the weather to when do we think we will get the vaccine. Finally, we landed on how we were feeling about life post-Covid. What will work look like? and church? and social gatherings? Will we go back to what we were doing before? or will we change based on the lessons we’ve learned over the last many months?

I sat listening for a few moments, and then I thought out loud, “unless we are intentional, we won’t change. We’ve got to be making thoughtful decisions right now about how we are going to be on the other side of this.” I think we were mostly talking about whether people will continue to work from home, whether we’ll be comfortable physically re-entering our social circles, and how we’ll interact with medicine and business, but I think we need to also think — right now — about how we can intentionally start to shift our culture.

What is it that we’ve seen that we’d like to change? Are we comfortable continuing on the course that we are on?

If, having seen our weaknesses, our broken systems, our inequities, we do not intentionally make moves to right our ship, we will continue to head the same direction we have been heading. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the lack of freedoms in the land of the free and the fear-based decisions made in the home of the brave, we will remain a country that benefits the few at the cost of the many.

It took us a long time to get here, and we won’t immediately change course. We are all going to have to lean hard into the turn, pull on all the ropes we can grasp, and keep our eyes firmly fixed on the world we hope to create. And we’re going to have to hold that position for quite some time.

If we really want a society in which all men, women, and children are treated equally, afforded the same respect and consideration, and endowed with certain unalienable rights, it’s going to look different around here. And it’s going to feel uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make decisions we never thought we’d have to make — about our homes, about our jobs, about our politics, and about our money. And if any of those things seems too dear to us, that’s probably where we need to start.

I invite you to think back with me over the last several months, what did you see that didn’t sit right? What possibilities can you imagine? Are you willing to set an intention that will enable change? Are you willing to discuss your intentions with a friend?

Can you imagine what we might do if we, the people, would be willing to intentionally move forward together? What a more perfect union we might form? What justice we might establish? What common defense we might provide? What domestic tranquility we might ensure? What general welfare we might promote? What blessings of liberty we might ensure? Not only for us, but for those who come after us?

Are we willing to be transformed?

What are your intentions?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12: 2

Back-to-School, 2020 Teacher Edition

Each morning last week, I opened my laptop and clicked on a zoom link to join the team at my new school. In some ways this Summer Summit, the name my school gives to back-to-school teacher inservice training, is reminiscent of many other trainings I have attended. I’ve been learning about the school’s culture and procedures, getting familiar with faculty and staff names and faces, and examining curricula, assessments, behavior management plans, the master schedule, and school-wide protocols — all the regular details of back to school preparation.

However, in some ways it’s very different due to the added layer of preparing for teaching in the era of Covid-19. I’ve learned how to meet with kids virtually through Zoom, how to deliver and receive content digitally through Google classroom, how to maintain online investment and engagement and build relationships with kids who I’ll see only on a screen, and how to stay safe in the school building where I’ll be working while students work from home.

And, this year, I have one more layer that I keep trying to look at, assess, and interrogate — my deeply rooted racism. I know it’s there, and I’m trying to call it out and deal with it as much as I can.

The first time I saw it last week was when I noticed myself chiming in to provide answers during instructional sections — I knew the answers, so why shouldn’t I unmute myself? But then I heard a small voice saying, Hey, Kristin, why don’t you pause a minute and see if someone else would like to speak? I took a moment to recognize that as a white woman, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities to speak — in fact, I’ve been the leader at several back to school trainings like this — my voice has been heard plenty. How can I learn, in this setting where half or more of the staff members are people of color, to close my mouth and listen to the voices of people who have been in the setting longer, know the community better, and who might have something to teach me?

This realization may have been sparked by the fact that I recently started listening to the Podcast Nice White Parents. It’s a story of the history of “well-intentioned” white parents who have attempted to integrate black schools in New York City and who have often done so by plowing in, demanding their voices be heard, and failing to acknowledge the culture and values of the people of color who were in the school first. Instead, they have come in waving money and shouting loudly about what should be done with it, silencing those who’d been just fine thankyouverymuch before the white people showed up. I’ve been cringing through these episodes, seeing my own well-intentioned-ness in the rearview mirror.

Midway through last week’s training one of the leaders inside a small group of a dozen of us, posed a sharing question to check in on how we are doing and how we are managing stress. It was the day after a 17 year old white boy in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot and killed two protestors in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, but when I was called on to respond, Kenosha was not at the front of my mind. I said that I was doing well, happy to be part of the team, and managing my stress by taking long walks with my husband. I then sat and listened as the Black men and women in the group took their turns, mentioned their grief and fear in light of recent events, and their passion for caring for our students, 99% of whom are Black. I felt conspicuous. Of course I am there for these students, too, but my privilege, my racism, was exposed in that moment. I could easily share, untouched by the impact of such racial violence. Though I had just the night before been horrified as I watched the video of the shooting on national news, my feelings of injustice — no matter how strong they are — can in no way compare to the lived realities of many of my new coworkers, and I’ve got to acknowledge that.

I’ll be supported in the interrogation and dismantling of my own racism because the school’s mission is explicitly anti-racist. All week long I heard the refrain of ensuring access, closing the achievement gap, and providing resources to ensure that our students have everything they need to succeed. I completed an hours-long course on strategies and language to use to convey the importance of education to my students and the imperative for 100% participation and 100% success.

And not only did I hear the refrain, I saw the practices enacted in our professional development. Staff members were provided scaffolding and support as they learned to function virtually through Zoom. We were given step-by-step instructions and modeling in the use of Google Classroom. We were given breaks away from the screen and incentives like gift cards and fun games that encouraged us to participate. Every instructional practice I will be expected to use — from the technology, to lesson planning, to behavior management — was modeled for me.

I’ve been walked through how to set behavioral expectations, how to use Google Forms to create informal assessments that I will use every single class period (as will everyone else on the team), how to use Google Slides to guide my students through each lesson, how to use my language to encourage my students to show up, opt in, work hard, finish strong, and reflect. We’ve played games, we’ve had hard conversations, we’ve laughed, and we’ve worked!

Why so intense? Because it matters that we get it right — lives are at stake. Whole futures weigh in the balance. Over 300 of our high schoolers have been at home since March, with varying levels of support and resources. Many of them live in poverty in communities that are under-resourced. Many have been fighting to survive in ways that I am sure I will never fully understand. Because we want to provide them with opportunities and access, we are committed to giving high-quality instruction. Because we want them to be able to use their voices and to have choices to pursue education, to obtain employment, to follow their dreams, and to live their fullest lives, we have high expectations for engagement and achievement.

And if I have high expectations for my students, I must also have high expectations for myself. If I expect them to learn and grow, I must be willing to learn and grow, too. If I want them to invest in their education, I must first demonstrate my willingness to invest.

So, I listen to podcasts that make me cringe. I lean into learning about all the technology and all the evidence-based practices. I commit to learning the culture of the school and conforming to the way they do things around here. I acknowledge that I have deeply imbedded racist beliefs, I call them out when I see them, and I invite others to call out the ones I don’t see.

When we were broken into our departments to analyze assessments and do lesson planning, I was thrilled to see that my two English department colleagues are Black women. They will be my guides, my mentors, my supports. I have a lot to learn, and I am thankful for the posture of willingness they have greeted me with. They are sharing resources, answering my questions, taking my phone calls, and welcoming me aboard. The highlight of my week was the end of one of our departmental sessions when the team leader looked into her camera and said, “We have got a dope squad!” Guys, I’m part of a dope squad!

I want to be very mindful of the privilege I’ve been given here — the opportunity, after believing my career was over, to use my gifts of writing and teaching in a community that is committed to social justice and the dismantling of racist systems, working side by side with highly qualified people of color. I could never have dreamt it was possible, but I am thankful, and I am ready.

I’ll put in this hard work; this is what I was built for.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.

Colossians 3:23

P.S. Many of you have offered support as I step into this work. So many of you have said you are praying for me and will continue to do so. I can’t tell you what that means to me. I will continue to take donations of surplus school supplies (I will never say no to all the surplus paper, folders, pens, highlighters that you have piled up at your house). I will always take book donations — particularly books that feature people of color and memoirs. Additionally, I learned this week that our school offers student incentives for showing up and working hard. I would love to have a stock pile of prizes for my students — I’m thinking small items like college logo cups, stickers, pencils, pens, etc. — think all those freebies you get wherever you go — or gift cards to Target, McDonald’s, etc. in small denominations such as $5 or less (free drink, etc.). I am open to suggestions, too! Thank you for all the support you have given me so far.

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

I keep hearing this question (even if it’s sometimes left unsaid): Why would I leave a perfectly decent job to go back to the classroom? why now — in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a great question, and the most honest answer I have is that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I would be going back to the classroom.

After two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell, I was finally learning all the ropes, and I had finally been granted the opportunity to work with the Lindamood-Bell for Schools program in its partnership with the Fort Smith, Arkansas schools. I’d been learning to use Zoom to join a teacher and her class to provide instructional coaching and in-the-moment changes to instructional plans, and I was loving this collaboration. It was reasonable to expect that if I stayed with the company I would be able to do more of this kind of work, and I was excited about that. Also, I had a solid caseload of students (and their families) who I’d been working with for a couple of years — designing and implementing instruction and even collaborating with the schools these students attended. I was finding a way to use my years of experience and to continue to grow.

The pay was fine, the work was challenging, and my body, which had rebelled in my former life as teacher, administrator, mother, wife, and denier of emotions, seemed to be able to manage the pace and the stress.

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

And then, in mid-March, it became apparent that we were going to take all of our equipment and materials home and we were going to work remotely until further notice. This was actually fine, too. In fact, Lindamood-Bell, I felt, did a great job of getting us all home, digitizing all of our resources, and providing (ahead of any mandates) additional sick time and vacation time. I probably could’ve continued to work with students remotely — from my home office — indefinitely.

Like everyone, I shifted my lifestyle — wore more comfortable clothing (which I lovingly refer to as my Covid uniform), went for more walks, cooked more meals to eat at home, and watched more television including the daily news reports.

I (like most quarantined humans) watched George Floyd die, and it looked too much like watching Michael Brown dying. I saw Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down, and he looked like people I know. I saw Rayshard Brooks shift from a man who’d fallen asleep in his car, to a man aware that his life was in jeopardy, to a dead man through the lens of someone’s cell phone, and I was horrified by the world we are living in — where in the space of a few weeks we repeatedly bore witness to the senseless killing of black men — black men who didn’t have to die.

Night after night my husband and I watched news reports and protests; every day I saw friends, former students, and my own children, posting on social media and reminding me that this is not new. Senseless deaths, not to mention broad and systemic mistreatment, of people of color happen every day in the United States, and they’ve been happening since the first slaves were dragged off boats onto the shores of this sweet land of liberty and beaten if they did not do the work that their white masters demanded they do.

In many ways, a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, smiling toward the camera, is just one more slave owner demanding that the black man do what he says or pay the price and be punished within the gaze of all the other slaves so that they will know their place and learn to comply.

In this climate I was sitting in my home office every day, meeting with students, doing interventions that enable them to read, chatting with their parents about how they are coping during a pandemic with all the kids at home, trying to get their own work done, and wondering when things will go back to normal.

And I knew that I didn’t want things to go back to normal — not if normal means that some kids get safe schools with excellent resources that set them up for success while other kids (for not fault of their own) get substandard materials, ill-prepared teachers, and less access to a quality education, while white folks who commit crimes often get the benefit of the doubt and minimum sentences and black folks who commit crimes often end up dead or incarcerated far longer than is necessary or humane.

The disparity between schools that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly black is not a new revelation to me — I’ve been aware of these inequities since long before I taught for one measly semester in the St. Louis, Missouri public schools, but somehow being quarantined during Covid, working every day with students who have been given every resource, and then being barraged by data about the inequities (a substantially higher incidence of Covid and deaths related to Covid among people of color, the number of underfunded and understaffed schools in urban centers like Detroit), along with a resurgence of activism, especially among young people including my own children, my coworkers, and many former students, created an atmosphere in which I saw the opportunity I had to step in.

Meanwhile, many teachers are feeling the need to leave the profession because of Covid — they feel they are unsafe in the classroom, that their communities are asking them to risk too much, that they can’t afford to put their loved ones in danger — and I don’t blame them. These are valid concerns. And if you’ve been in the classroom for years or decades and you are already tired, and you feel unappreciated because you are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-valued by your administration, your students’ parents, and your community, then being asked to go into a crowded space for up to eight hours a day, five days a week in the middle of a pandemic just might be the last straw.

So why — why? — would I willingly put my name in the hat?

Because as dark as everything seems right now, I hold onto hope that this just might be the time for major change. Covid-19 might be providing us an opportunity to see — really see — racism, societal inequities, broken systems, and unjust practices. Because we’ve had to shut so many things down, we might be able to see different ways of doing things — ways to incorporate working from home, digital platforms, and content-sharing so that every American kid can have access to all the content and resources that are available in all the best districts. We can begin to imagine scenarios in which one highly qualified teacher in New York City, for example, provides a webinar on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which students across the country and around the world can stream at a time that works best for them, submit a reflection to a digital discussion board, and then work collaboratively with other students from different neighborhoods, states, and even countries, to create a YouTube video to link to the original webinar for sharing with countless other students. Imagine how that experience might connect students to one another and impact their view of the world, themselves, and each other!

How might we re-shape education so that the neighborhood you live in, the color of your skin, and your parents’ income doesn’t determine your access to high quality content and educational experiences? Is Covid-19 providing us the space and the perspective to do this?

I think it might be!

Now, do I think I am going to single-handedly change the American educational system. You know I’m gonna try, but realistically, systems that are as established as our school system (or our prisons, or our government) don’t change quickly. In fact, if they have any hope of changing, they need the investment of participants whose voices are unafraid to offer new ideas, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to believe that things can be better.

And I believe they can.

So that’s why I want to go back to the classroom right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

Note: If you’d like to support my classroom and the work that I will do this year either in that classroom or from my home office, I am currently collecting composition books (one per student to start), highlighters (a set of three — yellow, pink, blue for each student), index cards for vocabulary work, and other classroom supplies. As soon as I get my school-issued email address, I will be posting a link for those who would like to support from a distance. Thank you so much for following me on my journey in this next chapter.

Getting Here: Changing Course, pt. 4

I started teaching in the fall of 1989 at Lutheran Special Education Ministries (LSEM) in Detroit. I had a degree in Secondary Education with a major in English and a minor in psychology, and I’d taken a couple courses on the exceptional child, but I had no special education certification. I had at one time explored special education as a career, and my first job out of college was working as direct care staff at a group home for teenaged girls with emotional impairments, but I wasn’t really prepared for a self-contained classroom of 10 seventh-graders with diagnosed learning disabilities. I learned a lot from those kiddos; I can only hope they learned a few things from me, too.

I took a few graduate courses at the University of Detroit that year and the next when I moved to a resource room position at Lutheran High School North and Lutheran High School Northwest. And then, though my husband was thriving in a 3rd and 4th grade classroom and I was beginning to gain some skills in special ed, we abruptly changed course when our son, who lived with his mother and stepfather, relocated right before the start of kindergarten. Because we wanted to continue our frequent visits, we relocated, too. I started teaching middle school and high school emotionally impaired and learning disabled students English Language Arts in a residential school, The Manor Foundation.

While there, I took more courses toward special ed certification, this time focusing on emotional impairments. I stayed at the Manor Foundation a year and a half — until our daughter was born — and then I began ten years focusing on one, then two, then three young children at home.

When the youngest started preschool, I started substitute teaching; then when she was preparing to start first grade, I began exploring graduate school.

I landed in Michigan State University’s Critical Studies in the Teaching of English program. Writing had long been my passion — in fact, the whole time I was home with my young children, I had been working on writing projects: submitting small pieces to parenting magazines, writing devotions, songs, and chancel dramas for our church, and even writing all the content for a monthly newsletter for teachers. I felt strongly that I wanted to further explore writing and literature, but I had no idea how this one choice would impact the course of my life.

Through this program, my gaze was turned to African American literature, Native American literature, and the power dynamics that exist in writing, academics, and society. In each of my courses, I began focusing my projects on the ways language is used to assert power and gain access. The reading and writing I did for those courses laid the groundwork for the ways I have continued to grow in my understanding of academic language, home language, and the ways we navigate different settings through our use of language. I began to see the language of the home — whether it be African American Vernacular English, Spanish, or Chinese, or a mixture of many languages — as a strength and the ability to shift from that home language to the language of work or the classroom as an asset — a tool to gain access.

So, when I left MSU and taught first in a community college in Michigan and another in Missouri and began to observe my students who were struggling to make that shift day in and day out, I sought ways to provide supports and encouragement while also validating the strength of the home language. What this looks like is that rather than being the English teacher who corrects students’ grammar, I have become the teacher who instead invites variation in grammar, even trying it out playfully myself, and then modeling for students the times and places where making the shift from one language to another becomes a way to gain access and even power.

Over the next nine and a half years, both at Roosevelt High School and Lutheran North, these ideas that began to form at Michigan State became integral to my classroom. Through my collaborations with other staff members, I began to develop a strength-based approach to teaching literature and composition. My students walked in the door with strengths — their personality, their resiliency, the language that they used to navigate their lives in whatever contexts they found themselves in, and the fact that they had access to education. My job was to help them identify and articulate those strengths which often looked liked reteaching.

Some of my Black students, and some of my White and Hispanic students, reported that they spoke ‘bad English’ and they ‘couldn’t write’. Those messages are debilitating — they don’t provide a place from which to grow. In my classroom, I began to use language such as, “you use different kinds of language in different settings — the language you use gives you access to your community. Do you imagine that the language I use would give me access to your community?” When students pictured me trying to come to their homes or their neighborhoods speaking the way that I do, they could see that I would be at a disadvantage. When I played with their language, using phrases such as “See, what had happened was…” or when I asked my students to teach me slang using the strategies I used to teach ACT vocabulary, they saw me struggle to learn in the same ways that they were struggling to learn Standard English. We were all language learners; we were in this together. Students who said they ‘couldn’t write’, were affirmed by my words, “you are learning how to write.”

I wrote every assignment with them — from prewriting and journaling through revisions and final drafts. When we needed to understand a grammatical rule, we looked it up together. We practiced identifying adjectives, prepositions, and clauses in our own writing, and then we experimented with breaking the rules intentionally — for effect, to make a point, or to show emotion.

This is what gives me life — playing with language, learning how it works, breaking the rules, and showing my students that they have the power to do the same.

I didn’t get it all right. I am sure that I made mistakes such as — in the early days, insisting that my students speak Standard English in my classroom, but why? Isn’t the classroom the place where we are learning the purposes and audiences for which we need to use Standard English? where we gain the tools we need for whatever comes next? As a teacher, do I want to be the keeper of correctness or an agent of access?

I think you already know the answer to that.

I’ve spent a lifetime getting here — building this philosophy by way of special education, writing, graduate school, and hours and days and weeks and months in the classroom with students — students who come to the classroom with inherent value, built-in strength, and learned skills. Each kid I meet matters.

But many many students in Detroit and areas like Detroit, many of whom are Black, many of whom don’t speak Standard English, have received the message loud and clear that the ways that they arrive, the manner in which they dress, or wear their hair, or speak, are inadequate. They don’t match the Standard — a Standard that was created and is maintained by white people in positions of power. They’ve got to learn to match that standard, they’ve been told, or they won’t succeed. No wonder they feel angry, or rebel, or fight like their lives depend on it to deny who they are and take on what they believe will get them out of the spaces they are in. And what does that cost them?

I’m just one middle-aged white woman from Michigan, but if someone is going to give me an opportunity to step into a classroom full of kids, to play with language, to learn, and to break some rules, how can I refuse?

I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

So, yes, I took a position in Detroit.

Yes, I’m going to be teaching English.

This decision meant saying no to my current coworkers, families, and students, no to another group of kids, and yes to another.

I’m trying to get to that. Maybe next time.

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther 4:14

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5

Coronavirus Diary #12: Taking Risks

We’re still here. We’re sitting in the midst of 2020, continuing to daily discover the elements of this new reality, and starting to take some risks.

I met a friend at a park yesterday, to share a cup of coffee, to chat, to get to know one another a little better, and to discuss challenges and opportunities we have encountered in writing and in education. I walked up to find her sitting at a picnic table, mask in hand. I’d left my mask in the car, absentmindedly. We agreed to situate ourselves at a table “six feet apart” which feels awkward. We find ourselves willing to taking a risk to sit in that awkwardness in order to be together, to build relationship, to share life.

My husband and I were in a similar situation last week when we met with the members of our community group outside. We hadn’t physically been together since early March, and we were excited to see one another, but what would’ve have been hugs turned into awkward negotiations of space as we gathered around a picnic table to chat and catch up. We all agreed to take some measured risk, to share space, to hear one another’s voices in person, to build community.

Yesterday morning, after my meet-up at the park, I was driving to my first Hellerwork appointment since March 24, when I passed a large group of people gathering to walk to mark the celebration of Juneteenth and to acknowledge that though we’ve come a long way from the days of slavery, we have a long way yet to go before people of color experience equity in America. I saw many, most wearing masks, walking in groups of two or five or eight, carrying signs, wearing T-shirts with messages of unity and support. They were willing to take a risk — to come outside and gather during a pandemic — for the sake of racial equity.

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/hundreds-gather-in-ann-arbor-to-celebrate-juneteenth-march-against-racism.html

On Friday night, my husband and I watched Just Mercy (streaming for free right now), a story that horrified me when I read the book several years ago, but doubly horrified me at this watching as I got a deeper realization of the hatred and harm that has been inflicted on Black bodies over the course of our nation’s history and that is still happening right now. We risked feeling uncomfortable on a Friday night, when we could’ve chosen yet another comedy or feel-good drama — either of which might’ve distracted us from this current reality. We took this risk to acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history and to realize the value of celebrating Juneteenth.

I walked into my practitioner’s office on Saturday wearing a mask; she was wearing one, too. In order to treat me, she has to be up close and personal, touching my body, sharing my space. She manipulates my fascia, kneads my muscles, coerces my IT band, and tries to convince my SI joint that it can indeed function according to design. She’s taking a risk to care for me, and I’m thankful. I’m taking a risk to see her, to allow her to get back to work after three months at home, and she’s thankful.

I head from that appointment to the pharmacy to pick up a medication that keeps my ocular herpes in check, to pick up a birthday and a graduation card, and to purchase more immune support tablets. The pharmacist is behind a sheet of plastic, but she takes the items I have touched, scans them, and hands me my bag. She’s taking a risk to support my health. I’m taking a risk, too. We both wear our masks; our eyes meet. I thank her; she thanks me.

From there I walk next door to the grocery store. I get two of every item on the list, check the stock and price of toilet paper (even though we now — finally — have a two-month supply at home), and stand on the X that keeps me 6 feet away from the next person in line for the cashier. I give the person ahead of me plenty of room to make his purchases and then move forward when it’s my turn. I swipe my card, place my bags back in the cart, and then take the receipt that is handed to me, knowing it has been touched by other human hands. Those hands have taken a risk to serve me, and I have taken a risk to be served.

Every day right now, it seems, comes with a level of risk I had not been aware of before. It’s a risk to buy groceries, get gas, see the doctor, or visit a friend. Activities that were previously mundane and performed without much thought now take a measured intentional approach, which I am willing to take for the things that I need.

Am I willing to take risks for others, too?

Am I willing to speak out against injustice? Am I willing to say — and post — that Black lives matter? Am I willing to walk in a protest? Am I willing to challenge the misconceptions of others? Am I willing to risk friendships with people who disagree with me?

Am I willing to point out the audacity of a president who encouraged thousands of people to gather on his behalf — to sit side by side in an enclosed space — not six feet apart around an outdoor picnic table? Am I willing to be outraged at the language he used to threaten those who might protest such a gathering?

Am I willing to risk examining my own beliefs, my own thoughts, my own choices? Am I willing to see my own prejudice? My own selfishness? My own fears? My own mistakes?

I want to be willing. I want you to be willing. I want us to be willing.

It’s scary, knowing the risk of danger, of infection, of change, of progress.

We step out carefully, wearing our masks, looking in one another’s eyes, keeping a safe distance, listening carefully, examining our hearts, interrogating our motives, and willing to exchange the ways we have known for a way that will ensure the safety, livelihood, and freedom of others.

It might be uncomfortable to do things differently — maybe even a little bit risky — but as one Black life after another is cut down before our very eyes, as they have been being cut down for hundreds of years, the risk of staying silent, of continuing in the path we have been on, is greater still.

I’m ready — are you ready — to start taking some risks.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.

Isaiah 1:17

Coronavirus Diary #11: Do Black Lives Matter?

Since the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, “Black Lives Matter” has been the rally cry of all those who seek equity for people of color. Some who are seemingly unfamiliar with America’s history of systemic racism, who minimize its impact, or who openly oppose broad cultural change often answer this cry with “All Lives Matter”. Right now, these battling cries are resounding, the latest shouting match between two sides dug into opposing positions, unwilling to budge.

This is happening, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic, where I find myself in the seat of privilege, safety, and comfort. I’m not feeling threatened or oppressed: I’ve continued to work from home; I have a solid health care plan; I’ve remained untouched by Covid-19 and by racial inequities.

I’ve been sitting here for almost six years now in an idyllic little house by a quiet little river. I’ve got acres of campus to roam, someone else to mow the lawn and repair the broken faucet, and I have little to no concern for my safety. I came here hoping to heal after years of soldiering — fighting my own internal battles, injuring others unintentionally, and sustaining my own soul-impacting wounds.

As I’ve healed, I have realized that although the soldiering years were tough on me and those I love most dearly, they were also some of the richest years of my life, mainly because they were lived largely in spaces of cultural intersection where my world view was challenged and expanded.

Shortly after we moved to St. Louis in 2004, I took a position teaching at Roosevelt High School. This enormous structure in the central part of the city was built almost a century earlier (1923) and was intended for the overflow of white students from two nearby high schools. By the time I walked in the doors, the once-majestic building was in poor repair and all but a few white students had begun learning their lessons in other, cleaner, brighter spaces.

At Roosevelt, most of my students were Black and Hispanic — born into a centuries old system in which they had limited access to cleaner, brighter spaces and from which they would emerge successful only by some mystery combination of hard work, miracle, and chance. They walked into my classroom exhausted from the struggle against poverty and the public gaze of suspicion, to find me — a thirty-something white woman in khakis — handing out overused and outdated textbooks and insisting that they engage in stories of American literature. I mean, I’m not insensitive. I saw the irony of teaching early American stories written by white men, many of whom owned slaves and engineered the system that would keep nonwhites in their places, of having my students read how Frederick Douglass gave his bread to poor white children so they’d teach him how to read, of showing my students how to analyze MLK’s dream of white children and black children playing together as they themselves sat in a school that was almost completely Black. I saw the irony, and I was uncomfortable.

The very structure they walked into every day, the materials they used, and the constantly revolving staff gave my students one message loud and clear: their Black lives did not matter.

I was there only a semester, not nearly enough time to build relationships founded on trust that might’ve led to educational transformation. I was one more teacher who left them to go work with students who were better resourced.

I, too, unwittingly, affirmed that their Black lives did not matter.

And, just as the principal who hired me away from Roosevelt promised, within the school that was well cared for, supplied with high quality materials, and staffed with well-qualified and committed professionals, I was able to build relationships with my students in classrooms that were a mixture of black and white. I was able to build trust and foster safety in my classroom. I was able to point out the irony in documents like the United States Constitution that declared all men to be free and equal, as long as they were indeed men, had white skin, and owned property; I was able to examine with my students the deep generational grief in the writing of Native Americans and Black Americans who had been denied their freedoms — their livelihoods — for the sake of free white men; we were able to interrogate the voices of white writers who seemed oblivious to the lived realities of their ‘darker brothers’; and we were able to dialogue about how our lives fit into the American story.

I was able to communicate — at least I hope I was — that these Black lives mattered.

When health challenges and a relocation took me away from those students, that community, that mission — I landed here in a nest of comfort, safety, and security.

I needed it. I really did. I’ve spent the last six years getting my health on track, experimenting with different ways of continuing my teaching career, of connecting with students through their reading, their writing, and their thinking. I’ve explored ways that I could continue the work of hearing, respecting, and valuing the lives of Black students, and yet, in this critical moment in our nation’s history — a moment that seems full of promise for change — I find myself working mostly with white children of means, whose parents can afford the one-on-one instruction that my company provides.

It doesn’t feel right.

Yes, I was able for a short time last spring, to Zoom into classrooms in another state, to provide remediation for students of color who were several years behind grade level, but it was just not the same as the day in and day out relationship-based journey that I was once able to take with a room full of students. Those students challenged me. They changed me. They won’t leave me.

I see them on social media — business leaders, heads of school, social workers, doctors, nurses, government workers, entrepreneurs, and educators — living testaments of what can happen when a student believes that their life — their Black life — matters.

They are having hard conversations right now — they are taking to the streets — they are raising their voices. They are shouting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” because they have too often seen their brothers, their sisters, and their friends on the ground, a knee in their backs or on their necks saying, “I can’t breathe.”

They, too, have found themselves in spaces occupied and controlled by whiteness where they felt they could not breathe.

I’m having a hard time sitting here in my safety, in my comfort, in my privilege right now, knowing that I care about Black lives, knowing that I know how to communicate that, knowing that I have what it takes to educate, to advocate for, and to elevate the voices of Black lives.

Because here’s the thing, all lives can’t matter until all Black lives matter.

When all Black students — even those at schools like Roosevelt — have the resources, the committed and well-compensated educators, the clean, bright spaces, and the opportunities to succeed without a miracle; when all Black students are educated with respect; when all students regardless of income, Zip code, or race, are given access to accurate histories, equitable opportunities, and even reparative measures to make up for all the time that has been lost; when all Black students have the opportunity and the supports to graduate from high school and even college and the freedom from worrying if they will be unjustly pulled over, arrested, or killed by police, then you might be able to convince me that all lives matter.

Until then, I’m gonna be looking for opportunities to walk beside and join the cries of those who are shouting as though their lives depended on it, “Black lives matter!”

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

If you are interested in learning more about school inequity in America, check out this resource list published by Teach for America.

If you would like to read more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the history of racism in America, check out the New York TimesAnti-Racist Reading List.