Sunday, December 14, 2014

Schooled.

It's been tense on campus since the Eric Garner verdict.

A panel discussion on socioeconomic diversity, scheduled long before the grand juries convened and sponsored by a group that bills itself as promoting constitutional history, ended in a heated debate about affirmative action and racial diversity at the university, and with a gaffe that left the many in the audience furious.

Two protests were organized: the first, along our equivalent of "fraternity row" just before Thanksgiving, on a night referred to as "Dranksgiving" when most students were out getting plastered before the holiday weekend, drew a small crowd of mainly students of color; the second, a die-in two days after the Eric Garner verdict (though it was initially organized to respond to the Michael Brown verdict), drew a much larger and more diverse crowd, but also made more evident--in the days that followed--the dissent among the organizers about the purpose and direction of their activism.

There was a public statement from the president, sent to university email addresses via one of his administrative staff members, decrying "unfairness that persists" despite our nation's "aspirations"; stating that the university "has a responsibility to bring its scholarship and teaching to bear on these urgent problems"; and charging the university Council to "develop recommendations."

Finally, days after the protest, an email came from the provost, outlining a task force with three working groups that the university will form to "make recommendations to the President about how to strengthen ... diversity, equity, and inclusivity as well as provide opportunities to discuss national events."

In the midst of all of this, I saw a few students who trusted me enough to talk to be about how they were feeling, tried to offer comfort, offered academic accommodations for those who were grief-stricken, who were not in a position to do academic work.  They felt like no one had heard them.  They wondered by the president hadn't said something more comforting in a personal email message.  They felt like business was going on as usual around them while they were protesting: classes were still meeting, and they still had hours of homework to do.  Two parallel universes.

"What do you think they want?" asked one of my colleagues.

"I think they want to be supported," I responded.

"But what does that mean?" he countered.

We talked about the ineffectiveness of being critical of administration (because that's what students are supposed to do, and yet, it's not exactly productive on its own).  We talked about whether the students want to change the campus or change the world, about whether they ought to take the same kind of responsibility that students took during the Civil Rights era, whether they ought to worry about their grades if what they really wanted was to make change, that back then the students weren't "supported," so why should we do things any differently for them now?

I came away from the conversation feeling a little "schooled," but also feeling like I hadn't finished thinking about it.  And as I ran this morning, sucking wind and stopping to walk every mile and a half or so, this is what I thought.

First, the university is a different place than it was in 1960.  I would be curious to explore the origin and evolution of the phrase "university community," but I suspect that if it was used in the 1960s, it meant something different. I could be completely wrong, but I feel like there's an imagined warmth in that phrase now that I don't think existed before the 1980s.  Sure, dorms have been around since the first universities were founded, but the university-as-home was a foreign concept to my parents.  Now, there are people whose job function it is to make everyone play nicely in the sandbox together.  To architect relationships.  And if we're going to establish expectations among students and parents that the university serves in loco parentis, then how can we turn around and suddenly say those expectations don't apply here? 

The question--"what do they want"--is itself problematic.  Because it suggests that there's an "us" and a "them."  So who is the "them"?  The non-white students?  Why aren't we asking what we want as a community, if that's really what we are?  I thought about the little girl sitting in the pew in front of me in church this week, the adopted daughter of two white parents, and thought: would I be telling her that this is her problem, not mine?  Why isn't it a problem we all have to face together?  Why does a memo sound like we treating this as an academic problem, or as an administrative problem to be "advised" by committee?  Yes, shifts in campus climate often require new infrastructure.  But infrastructure alone isn't going to change the way we relate to one another.  That's a much different sort of educational problem.

Teaching, really good teaching, is an act of love.  (With apologies to my readers in academe, who may decide you're never going to read this blog again:) Not just love of the content.  But love in the way Freire meant it: profound shared commitment to our humanity.  Freire urged critical educators to build communities of solidarity as a form of networking.  Not to leave the work to their students.  Yes, we're there to listen.  But I don't think we can stand on the sidelines, either.  We're all in.

The thing is, the situation right now is not like the Civil Rights movement.  Or the Vietnam War.  Our students were protesting police brutality (and they've since organized panels to discuss that, too), but they were also protesting something much more amorphous.  Not a policy, but a lack of civility.  The Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice verdicts are metonyms for their own struggle to be seen for who they are as full human beings, for the inability of others both to see the color of their skin and to look beyond it.  Any one of them, at the wrong place and at the wrong time, is just as vulnerable.  Honestly?  In my mostly-blue-collar-white-and-Latino-laborer town, when you see someone who doesn't fit that description walking around, you wonder where they're going.  Why is that still the case?  The students on the ground at our university die-in could actually be dead in some cities, a case of mistaken identity.  These are our students.  Brilliant, talented, highly motivated young people.  And how do we reconcile that reality with the kum-ba-ya admissions-brochure portrait of "diversity" that is the prevalent narrative?  Do we expect our students to leave that heartbreaking truth behind when they step foot on campus?  To pretend it doesn't exist? Because police brutality is only possible in a state where it's supported by someone.  By educated voters who believe that violence and force is more necessary in some communities than in others.

Why, I wonder, did the university take no action after a (white) freshmen wrote an incendiary piece last year about being asked to "check his privilege"?  What would the response have been if a black student had written the piece?  Did the fact that it was a white student change it?  Why weren't we having real conversations about white privilege back then?  Why did the dialogue unfold in the media (social and otherwise) but not on campus?  And why did we let it drift away?

We applaud our students for standing up, and we charge them to work for something better, but students find it very difficult to walk away from their academic responsibilities, even to protest.  And they can't participate in the broader conversation about justice on campus if they're not keeping up with their work, enabling them to stay here.  It's a catch-22.

Our students are headed home for winter break this week, to the communities--as my boss reminded us--where this is all being dealt with in different ways.  It will be interesting to see what happens when they reconvene, what they bring with them, what energy will have been deflated or defused.  Some of them will have participated in the marches in Washington or New York.  I hope that the conversation doesn't end here.  I hope that (as I mentioned in my response to Ferguson) the humanities step in once they're back on campus.  That we start watching movies and reading books together, trying to understand each other better, talking (not just listening, though that, too) about the things we find it difficult to name, and figuring out we're all going to do to make this world a more just place to live.
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Friday, December 12, 2014

The Perfect Fit

The checkout line is short, as it usually is that time of the morning.  The cashiers are in a good mood, because no thoughtless customer has ruined their day yet.  My bag is light: pouches of squeezable applesauce, bags of kettle corn for a stocking stuffer.  The checker on the Witherspoon line greets me with a smile, asks me if I've found everything OK.

Yes, I tell him, and then some.  As usual.

"Great," he says. "Glad to hear you're satisfied.  But just so you know," he adds, "you can always return things if you need to.  Says so right up there."  He gestures at the banner spanning the front of the store, which guarantees my satisfaction or my money back.

I laugh.  "Do I look like the sort of person who would return things?"  Is it that obvious, I wonder?

"People are funny," he says, re-packing my bag.  "I always mention it.  Because you know ... it's like they think they have to be happy with what they've got.  They're too polite."

"Not me," I assure him.  "I never have a problem returning things."  I lean in a bit, lowering my voice.  "But maybe I'm just a particularly whiney bitch."

He blinks, and starts laughing at me.  "No, I'm sure you're not," he says.  "And I don't have a problem returning things, either."  He finishes packing my bag.  "You have a great day," he tells me.

"You too," I say.  "I'll be back."  I wave my bag at him.  "But not with these things."

~~

Maybe it was my father who taught me how to bring things back.  He thought nothing of waving the waiter over, the kind of diner who would complain about the fly in his soup, the malas hierbas (weeds) on his plate, or who would use a snow blower once and return it to the store.  When I discovered L.L. Bean's lifetime guarantee, and Calphalon's lifetime warranty, and other places that took things back, no questions asked, I thought that I'd found nirvana.  Because in those places, you could always get your order right.  Exactly as you wanted. Decisions made entirely by you. Complete control. The perfect fit.

And I've brought back my share of Christmas gifts on Boxing Day over the years, even not to those places, with the logic that if I wasn't going to use it, or if it didn't fit (which so many things didn't), I didn't want the item to go to waste.  I'd donate the refund, or the item itself, thinking that maybe someone else could use it better.  There were so many things I didn't need.  It was so much easier to give than to receive.

Maybe, though, in retrospect, it was less about the giver and more about me.  Maybe I should have been more willing to believe that other people's gifts were given out of love, and not obligation.  Maybe the poor fit was my own narrow-mindedness.  Or maybe fear that I could never be grateful enough.  Returning something is easier than sitting with it, owning it, taking responsibility for it, or for the relationship it signifies.

~~

I celebrated my birthday the other day.  It was an unremarkable year, and I had low-key expectations for celebration, which was just fine by me.  My husband had planned to take me to dinner (alone!), my kids made me cards and cupcakes from a box with frosting from a can for breakfast (funfetti!), and quite literally hundreds of friends and former students (who, love them, still call me "Dean") sent me good wishes, mostly on Facebook, but via email and snail mail, too.  I was feeling loved.

We celebrate birthdays with cupcakes at work, too.  And though we don't exchange Christmas gifts in the office, the birthday person gets a gift.  My boss ribbed me gently about my handmade gift post, reminded me that I was lucky people remembered me at all.  True, that.  I tried to explain --but it got muddled somewhere between my brain and my mouth--that it wasn't so much about the handmade as the thought: that I'd rather get nothing than get a gift from someone who felt they had to give one, and gave any old thing just to dispense with the obligation.  It's the same impulse that, over the years, has led me to return things.

As we passed around the cupcakes, I looked at the box on the table in front of me.  Considering that awkward balance of obligation and generosity.  Hoping they didn't feel that they had to give me anything at all, hoping that they knew that being valued was gift enough.  Feeling like it would be easier not to get gifts at all.  Less vulnerability that way.

Delicately, I removed the wrapping paper and opened the box.

How could they have known?  But someone knew.  A wooden bowl, a spiral-but-not-spiral of twisted layers, like an open corkscrew, almost like a basket, a dark exterior with a light interior.  Something to hold something, or not to hold anything at all.  A work of art that I'd admired in the university museum store, but would never have bought for myself.

I held it, breathed in the deep earthy smell of the wood stain, traced the curves with my fingers, allowed the bowl to rest in my cupped palms.  The perfect fit.

And trying not to let them see my throat tighten, said the completely inadequate words--"thank you"--that we have for moments like this, and replaced the bowl carefully in its tissue paper nest in preparation for its journey home with me, marveling at just how incredibly gift-ed I am, in more ways than I can count.
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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Still Breathing

I will always remember where I was when the towers came down on September 11th.

And I will always remember were I was when the grand jury decided not to indict a second police officer in the killing of an unarmed black man.

Part of me feels like going on today is its own version of #crimingwhilewhite (which--incidentally--is one of the most powerful hashtags I've seen in a long time; I spent the better part of last night watching the conversation unfold on Twitter, watching people talk about whether the conversation itself was a positive expression of solidarity or a reification of privilege).  How do I go to a meeting about a peer academic advising website, or attend a staff meeting during the student walk-out and die-in (as if somehow their protest is not my protest too), or dive into a series of afternoon appointments about registration for courses, at a place that pretends it thinks that all students are equal?

I didn't feel that I could weigh in on the Michael Brown case.  There was too much I didn't know.  But this time?  I watch the video, and I feel sick to my stomach.  How can anyone not let go when someone says "I can't breathe?"

How can we ignore the fact that had he been a white man, Eric Garner would (I have to believe) not be dead?

Jennie's thoughtful post over at Still Life with Crockpot reminds us how socially constructed race is.  How our categorization of people is more about our imagination, and the effects that our imaginations have on our behavior, and the self-fulfilling prophecies of that behavior, than anything based in biology.  I've believed that for a very long time, long enough to try to apply it in graduate school programs, and in my professional life.  But constructed as race is, over time we have created and now maintain a situation in which people don't all get to start with the same resources and advantages and--yes, let's use that word--privilege.

Where, now, can we begin? What is an effective form of protest? As one colleague commented: "Marches, die-ins, clickivism, petition signing, online raging--all therapeutic, certainly, but it hasn't altered the course of history."  So what do I do?

Because I am still breathing.
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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving Matters

Yesterday was World AIDS Day, and an older friend of mine who has worked as a chaplain in hospice was lamenting that it's been forgotten.  I don't think that's true--after all, maybe you bought an App for (RED) or a latte at Starbucks in a (RED) cup, or were accosted at your BofA to contribute--but I do think that AIDS has lost some of its immediacy for us.

When I was a sophomore in college, my university hosted the AIDS quilt during the first week of December.  Back then, in 1993, we were still crawling out of the culturally conservative 80s, and the quilt display felt like a radical event.  I didn't personally know anyone who was sick with AIDS, much less died from it.  And I was still a little immortal.  Seeing the quilt made AIDS real to me, gave the disease names and ages and--in some cases--even a face.

In the years that followed, both in LA and back in New Jersey, I met people who later died of the disease, one of them just this past year; still, in his last days, he was more isolated than you'd expect (though people from our fellowship occasionally visited him and brought him food), and his obituary mentioned only that he'd died after a "long illness."  Which might as well have been cancer, except you'd probably say cancer, but we stumble over the word AIDS, because there is still so much judgment attached to it: how did this person contract it, why weren't they protecting themselves, were they an IV drug user, etc. etc.

Now, AIDS is about Africa, it's like the "We Are The World" all-star appeal to end hunger, it's an app fundraiser, or something to make you feel good about buying your coffee.  It's not that I don't support these philanthropic efforts; without them, we wouldn't be able to make the kind of progress we've been making over the past decade.  Now, here at least, people don't die from AIDS, because they live with it, instead.  And that's a significant improvement.

But part of me is still uncomfortable about what I'd call thoughtless philanthropy--like the ALS ice bucket challenge.  Do our intentions matter?  Or is the giving enough?  Maybe I apply the same litmus test to this kind of giving as I apply to giving gifts at Christmas.  For me, the thought matters more than the gift, but a thoughtless gift makes me feel worse than no gift at all.  Am I a gift snob?

***

Giving Tuesday started through a partnership between the technology site Mashable and the 92nd Street Y.  And knowing what I know about peer influence, that's the way forward in philanthropy: figuring out how to get the message out using the social media tools available to us.  But I hope it doesn't happen at the expense of remembering the human beings, the people who are memorialized in the AIDS quilt, or the people who are actually living with ALS.  Because I don't want giving to be an easy way to dispense with our real responsibility.

Do you participate in Giving Tuesday?  Do you feel like intentions are important in giving, or is it more important just to make sure that our philanthropic priorities are met?
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Saturday, November 29, 2014

It's a Small World

When we asked our kids what they liked best about Disney, one of the things my son mentioned was the "It's a Small World" ride.  My husband and I both laughed, given how dated the ride is, how old the animatronics are, how stereotyped the countries are.  We joked about the parts of Disney we thought could use some updating, this included.  But on the other hand, I can see why: it's a simple, happy version of the world all in one place.

We spent a fair amount of time at Epcot this year (which I now know means Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), not so much in the "space age" section, but walking around the world showcase, appreciating the replica architecture, visiting tiny museums, listening to people speak in different languages.  As my son colored in a character at one of the Kidcot stops where they wrote his name in Japanese, I found myself thinking about the first time I started to appreciate the world outside of my immediate family (which was, admittedly, pretty global, with bits scattered in Spain, Guatemala, Puerto Rico).  I'd been exposed to lots of other languages, and I watched my share of the news, but I think the first time the world became real to me was some time in the fourth grade, when I met Nana.

Nana was a Japanese student who came to the U.S. knowing almost (or so it seemed to me) no English.  She spent most of the day elsewhere in the school in ESL and other classes, but when she was in my regular classroom, my teacher had assigned her to me: I was supposed to help her figure out what we were doing, where we were in the textbook, how to do the seatwork.

I'm not sure I did a very good job of all of that, but I do remember Nana teaching me to write my name in Japanese, and I thinking that it was pretty cool to be able to write with an entirely different alphabet.  We also spent hours looking at her school supplies (things like her pencil case, which I think now must have been a Picachu prototype), and talking in our limited way about clothes, and doing the things that kids do when they discover another culture.

from dadsguidetodw, because my pictures aren't as good
Nana didn't stay long in my classroom--they never did tell us where she went--but I think now about how much more cosmopolitan my kids are, how they haven't even traveled as much as I had, but they have children--not just second or third generation but recent immigrants--in their classrooms from all over the globe.  And it does feel like a small world to them, a world in which you can connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time, across boundaries of geography and culture.

My son and I returned to Epcot on the last night for the fireworks show, a special holiday edition featuring children singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let It Begin With Me," and Disney Imagineers know what they're doing: if anything left you feeling inspired to go do good in the world, that was it.  I hope that the spirit of common humanity and shared experience can, in fact, unite all of us this holiday season, remind us that we're not just colored splotches on a map but real human beings, and that we have a responsibility to take care of each other. Because it really is a small world, after all.
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

With Thanks

This is just a quick but sincere thank you to everyone who worked today so that I could enjoy Thanksgiving with my family, without the usual holiday stress.  With love, me

 
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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Light the Night: Peace Begins at Home

It was well past dark when I came into the town that marks the half way point between work and home, and noticed the luminaries lining the main street.

If I'd been any other traveler, I might have driven past the lights, thinking how festive they were for the holidays, wondering if there were some special celebration in town (though there wasn't a soul out on the street), or whether they did that regularly in the downtown business district.  But it took me only about a minute before I saw that the bags had been marked with stickers, realized that it was early December, and made the connection: I knew what they were for, and I sucked in my breath, remembering.

When we first moved to our neighborhood, in 2005, my neighbor asked me to serve on the Board of Trustees for the county's domestic violence agency.   She was the executive director, as soon as I introduced myself on our move-in day, ringing her doorbell to ask if I could borrow some aluminum foil, sporting my University Women's Retreat sweatshirt, she decided that I could be useful to her.  "Look mom," her teenaged son pointed out from behind her in the doorway, "she's even wearing the right shirt."

A few weeks later when she made the ask, I think I made some sort of comment that day about how I wasn't really qualified, but by my second month in town I was attending bi-weekly Thursday night meetings.  It was an an astoundingly large organization with significant influence in the county, and I served on the board for about four years, until I thought I was going to have a second child, and things started to get complicated.  Though I knew more than I might have wanted to about domestic violence and sexual assault going in to the position, I learned a lot about community outreach during those years, and I credit the Communities of Light event with helping me to really get to know my neighbors.

Communities of Light was started as a way to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault; the lumaniaries were supposed to serve as a symbol of hope for those whose lives had been affected by violence, suggesting that the community itself would offer a space of solace and comfort, even when victims couldn't find that at home.  The agency sold luminary kits, and board members would take a few cases, first to our neighbors, and then to businesses in town, who would all light the candles on the same night, sending a collective message as a community about support for victims, and a reminder that "Peace Begins at Home.".  I felt a little like a Girl Scout going door to door with the carefully piled the luminary kits in my son's red wooden wagon, he squashed into the back holiding the money, but I was always proud when, on the appointed night, I'd look down our street at the lines of flickering candles.

Universities have been struggling with sexual assault in a very public way recently, and I'd like to ask the community to hold survivors in its thoughts during the holiday season, when it's not uncommon to see even higher than usual incidences of violence, not just at our institutions (which see increases at other times if the year), but in your hometowns. When you see lights lining streets or in windows, please remember that Peace Begins at Home. and remember that someone you know--female or male-- might need a safe space, too.

This fight is not theirs alone. Shouldn't we all stand up say we've had enough?
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