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.

Coronavirus Diary #10: Demo and Rehab

How are we all doing? I feel like we need a check-in, because this has been some kind of year — we’ve got a pandemic going on (US fatalities have surpassed 110,000), unemployment continues at record highs (it’s improving, but at least 13% of Americans are still unemployed), the US economy is far from recovery, and protests continue across the country demanding a dismantling of systemic racism.

It’s a lot. So, how are we all doing?

Me? I feel hopeful, passionate, energized!

I told my mom that the other day. She asked if I’d see the news — what did I think of all the protests.

When I replied, “I’m excited!” I heard silence on the other end. I think her filter was firmly in place, or she might have said, “Have you lost your mind?”

So I said, “I know it sounds crazy, but this could be the moment that we’ve been waiting for — this could be the chance to tear it all down and rebuild.”

I’m not sure that comforted her.

I mean, tearing it all down does sound kind of scary…unless you’ve watched HGTV.

Every show starts the same — the hosts walk into some flea-ridden, dilapidated, mold-encrusted, falling down structure; they survey each room discussing what needs to be done and what it will cost; and then they get out their sledge hammers and start tearing out all the stuff that can’t or shouldn’t be salvaged.

Transformation always starts with demo.

It’s the only way. Putting new over old or propping up an existing structure is only a temporary fix. Duct tape can only hold for so long. If you want to see new life inhabit a space that has run its course, served its time, and is badly in need of rehabilitation, you have to do a total gut rehab.

And it’s time.

Our foundation, built on the backs of slaves and designed to perpetuate the wealth and success of the few, was faulty to begin with, and now the earth has shifted. What’s held in place for almost 250 years is showing signs of age and decay, and we are sorely in need of renovation.

The cost of this remodel is high — higher than any of us can imagine — and all the guys in suits are looking at the existing structure and the suggestions for change, shaking their heads, and saying, “it can’t be done!”

But here’s the thing, it can’t NOT be done. We can’t push these repairs off any longer, or the whole structure is going to crumble under our feet. The foundation is cracked, the supports are wobbling, and one strong wind is gonna topple the whole thing to the ground.

I can hear the storm rolling in. And it just might be a perfect storm.

We all had to slow down sometime in March when we got sent home from work. Forbidden from socializing, we all started watching the news a bit more because, um, our very lives were at stake. And it was at the moment when we all recognized our mortality that we tuned in and watched a white man kill a black man right in front of our eyes.

And, because their very lives were at stake, people of color and many, many allies, stood up, walked out of their doors, and said, “Enough is Enough!” A whole nation had already come together to battle Covid-19, so it was already positioned to come together against another enemy. The masses were connected on social media, meeting through Zoom calls, Facetime, and every other platform known to man, so it was a only small step from, “Hey, could you and your people sew up about 1,000 masks,” to “Hey, could you and your people make a bunch of signs and meet us at the steps of the capital, outside the White House, on Washtenaw Avenue, or on Forest Park Parkway?”

And didn’t they show up! Across the country and around the world, people are showing up, in the midst of a pandemic, despite instances of continuing brutal policing, spraying of tear gas, and countless arrests. People are showing up!

People are showing up on social media, in the streets, with their money, with their signs, on their feet, and on their knees. They are demanding a gut rehab, chanting, “Tear it down, tear it down, tear it down, tear it down!”

And doesn’t that energize you? Doesn’t it energize you to think they if we eradicate all the mold, tear out all the termite-eaten boards, and break up that cracked up foundation, we might see possibility?

The demo can be jarring, but what comes next is invigorating.

I always love the part of the rehab show where the designers walk into the newly configured blank space. They stand amid the bones, gesturing and pointing, deciding together, “what if we opened up this wall? how about a large window at the back overlooking the yard?” It’s at that moment that any possibility exists — the broken, the outdated, the filth has been removed — a fresh start lies ahead.

Visionaries are right now tossing their blueprints on the table — plans for changing the ways communities are policed, how we respond to crisis, how we elect our leaders, how we organize education. And, maybe because of the pandemic, our schedules, our pace, our regular work flow have been interrupted, and we all suddenly have the time, the space, the capacity to imagine a new way. I mean, since March, we’ve been literally living a new way, so it’s not a huge stretch to re-imagine all kinds of different ways of living our lives, organizing our days, and restructuring our communities.

This could be the perfect time — and it’s long overdue — for a gut rehab.

The cost may be high, but our combined wealth should be able to manage it. We have the ingenuity, the resources, the creativity, and the passion. Why wouldn’t we pool our resources, and invest in the future of our country? After all, the return on our investment might just be that more perfect union with liberty and justice for all.

Doesn’t that get you excited?

 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Romans 12:18

I’m reposting this today with a few resources tacked on — I know that I feel inspired and compelled to learn more, do more, and in some way contribute to the rehab of our country. If you, too, feel inspired, check out these resources:

He who watches over us doesn’t slumber, a re-visit

I wrote this piece when citizens were demonstrating in Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown killing. Looking back now, I feel so naive. I believed that change was happening, that finally we would see an end to racial violence. Today, in the midst of nation-wide protests over the murder of George Floyd and countless others — I am feeling hopeful again — hopeful that change is gonna come and that the endless disregard for the lives of black and brown people will be something we talk about in history classes and not see on the news. I know that the God who holds us all — the black, the brown, the white — in the same hand is able to bring peace and reconciliation. I want to be part of that change.

I was sound asleep just a little while ago. Something woke me. I reached down to check on Chester, my Golden Retriever who sleeps on a doggy bed on the floor within arm’s reach. His bed was empty.  

I don’t know why I reached under my bed, but that is where I found him. In his six and a half years of life, I have only found Chester under the bed one other time…shortly after our son left for the Army. He could sense our distress then; was he sensing distress now?  

I checked my phone. Maybe one of my kids texted in the middle of the night with some sort of emergency…I mean, the dog was under the bed…something was not right in the world.  

My news feed told me that once again teargas was used in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor was arrested for protesting.

What is happening?

From 2005 to June of this year (2014) I taught in a small Christian high school on the north side of St. Louis — two miles from the QT that was burned down in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown. At the time, the school had approximately sixty percent African American students and thirty-five percent white students; the remaining five percent were Asian, Hispanic, or otherwise classified.

The North side of St. Louis has a reputation for being violent and racially divided. Some people are afraid to go there. Some people wondered why I taught there. 

But in that space — at that intersection of white and black, urban and suburban, conservative and liberal — we had an opportunity.

My students and I were able to discuss issues in my classroom with humor and candor that might not be discussed outside those walls. The school fosters an open dialogue that values Christian unity amid diversity. My students taught me so much about dispelling stereotypes and respecting difference. They changed me forever.

I am not teaching there this year — the year of a violent police shooting — the year that many of my students go home at night to a broken and hurting Ferguson, the year that some of my grads are demonstrating every night, the year that neighboring public schools have closed in response to the violence. I am not there. 

Instead, I have started a new chapter in Ann Arbor, MI — which has a reputation for being inclusive, liberal, conscientious. This morning I went to the post office and was jokingly reprimanded by the African American postal worker who didn’t like me calling him ‘sir’. I smilingly explained to him that I had just moved back to Michigan from a place where using ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ is respectful and expected. He smiled knowingly and we wished each other a great day. Then, I exchanged pleasant conversation with the African American cashier at the grocery store who didn’t need to check my ID when I purchased some wine because it was her ‘job to know’ who to card. My nails were done in a salon staffed exclusively by Asian American women who joked with me and my daughter and exchanged smiles with us. I came home to a campus that houses a small but diverse population that, at least on the surface, seems to be respectful and equitable. I didn’t have a hint of racial tension in my day.  

Before I went to bed I checked the news and saw peaceful protests in Ferguson, an upbeat interview with the new chief of police there, a statement from President Obama encouraging open dialogue and peaceful resolution. I wanted to believe we were moving in the right direction — that all would soon be right with the world. I went to sleep with Chester on his doggy bed by my side.  

But several hours later, I am aware that all is not right in the world tonight — Chester is hiding under my bed. The dog who follows me everywhere, did not budge when I came to the living room at two in the morning to write. He, like many tonight, is distressed. 

I, too, am distressed. This — racism, violence against people of color, inequitable policing, systemic disparity — has gone on too long. People I know and love are hurting, protesting, putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of change.

Like Job, I “weep for those in trouble.” As I “hope for good, evil comes,” As I “look for light, then comes darkness” (Job 30:25-27). 

But even in trouble, even in darkness, God is still God. He is in Ferguson; He is in Ann Arbor. And “He who watches over us will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3). Right now He is keeping watch. I pray that Ferguson, and those that I love there, will one day feel free to sleep in peace.

Resources for learning about/building racial equity:

Teaching Tolerance – free resources for educators “to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create civil and inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued and welcome participants.”

Anti-racism Reading List – from Ibram X. Kendi’s

Also, there are many places that could use your donations right now, but I’ll suggest two schools that I am aware of that foster racial dialogues and provide strong educational opportunities of students of color:

Lutheran North, St. Louis, MO – the school mentioned in this post

Elan Academy, New Orleans, LA – an elementary school started by one of my former students, who is also a graduate of Vanderbilt University