What we permit, promote, and prohibit

Earlier this week, when news broke about the Haitian immigrants at the border of Del Rio, I couldn’t comprehend it, just in terms of the sheer numbers of people. When I saw images of people being chased by DHS officials on horses, I couldn’t process it. Then I saw Bernice King’s tweet, pictured below, and I finally had to stop trying to cognitively run from it.

I teach a policy class each fall, and while I have set things I always talk about (TANF, Social Security, child welfare policies, etc) I also try to be responsive to the political and social issues that are unfolding throughout the semester. I do this not to be reactive, but to be intentionally responsive and show students in multiple ways that policy (and implementation of policy) affects people. Policy can constrain rights or expand them; it can facilitate access to resources and supports or it can limit them. Policy shows what we value, what we will permit, what we will promote, and what we will prohibit.

Today at the end of class I asked them to tune into this topic over the weekend, and that Tuesday we would talk about some of the policy implications of this, both current and historical.

Here are some of the sources I am using in my pondering and preparing. I kind of dread it; it will be complicated and messy…but I think it is important.





Metaphorical masks and bearing each others’ burdens

Every fall semester I teach a class on macro practice where the focus is on community organizing and development, as well as organizational development. Early on, as I am trying to connect with the students, we talk about community and what it means to us. This year, I tried something different. I gave every student a large-ish sticky note and asked them to think about a community that is most special or important to them. Then, I asked them to write what their hopes or dreams were for that community if they were to come back to it after an absence of five to ten years. I told them not to put their names on them.

As students finished writing, I invited them to come put them on the dry erase board. In my mind’s eye, it was going to look like a patchwork quilt. In reality, it looked like a dry erase board with post it notes on it. BUT the content was interesting and I started reading them to myself as the students were discussing something in pairs.

The notes my students wrote with their community wishes and dreams.

I read things like “I wish that my community of Richmond will have removed every statue or memorabilia associated with the confederacy” and “I hope that my community is still small enough to show care to its members like I remember” and “I wish for every school in my community to have a social worker and enough good teachers”.

And then I got to one that said “I will wish that my community doesn’t still see me as a burden. I will wish that I will not feel so alone”. I looked around at my students and couldn’t easily identify a contender for who might have written this.

As we were moving from small group to large group discussion again, I read some of the notes out loud. I debated for a minute, and then read the one above, about feeling alone and like a burden. I said that I was sorry that someone felt like that about a community that was important to them. I said I hoped that whoever wrote this would know that I didn’t see anyone as a burden to our community and that I hoped they knew the feeling of being included. I invited them to talk to me privately after class.

People were quiet, a bit uncomfortable. These are students in a cohort who have had at least 5 classes together, but because of COVID and hybrid and online learning, some of them are just now in a room together for the first time. I thanked them all for their engagement in the work. We moved on and had a good class in terms of participation.

I noticed this week that students checked in with each other differently before class started. They moved around more, talked to people that they sometimes don’t. Maybe they were thinking about making sure someone didn’t feel like a burden.

During class, I let them do small groups outside so they could take their (literal) masks off and see each other while discussing. Watching them take their literal masks off made me think about the metaphorical masks we wear sometimes. I thought about how that morning I had cried on the way to work, not out of loneliness but out of anxiety. And even though I am fortunate to have good friends and colleagues, there was no one I felt I could tell because—wait for it—I didn’t want to be a burden. I got to work and anyone who asked me about my day heard that I was fine or even great or maybe just “hanging in there” depending on the time.

Just as I feel it is my work (purpose, calling) to work to create and nurture community for others, and to bear the burdens of others, I have to be willing to lay my burden down for someone else to bear.

And that’s a crux of community: the inherent need for reciprocity and the requirement for vulnerability. How am I bringing this combination of reciprocity and vulnerability to my teaching? How am I modeling it for my students? How am I bringing it to my work in the community?

We create the beloved community by being the beloved community, living into its vision though imperfectly.

“Minding the gap”

In London, “minding the gap” is a phrase you hear frequently when using the subway. It is a reminder to pay attention to the space between the train and the platform. It can also be a metaphor for paying attention to the space between where you are, and where you are going….or a reminder/call to action to pay attention to what is missing.

Photo by Alessio Cesario on Pexels.com

After the summer of 2020, I, like many others across the globe, committed to being anti-racist. As I prepared for the fall semester of 2020, this also meant I committed to being explicitly anti-racist in my teaching. I used Dr. Ibram Kendi’s framing of the term with my students, with respect to the idea (and I am paraphrasing) that being anti-racist is not a fixed position that I will ever achieve. Rather, it is something I will continually be working on, forever, and something that every day requires the commitment to making anti-racist choices.

Let me be clear: It is something that every day I fall short at, in some way or another. But I am working. I am trying to “mind the gap”.

Across settings, this work looks like examining my own bias, facing the ways in which I have been living in denial, being thoughtful (full of intentional thought) about things I support with time and money. It also requires enough humility to hear the feedback and face the questions when I make a choice or engage in an action that is rooted in racism rather than anti-racism. (Even as I write this I am cringing about something that happened in a community setting, related to a volunteer role that I have. My passive un-critical thinking, coupled with what is a personal trait, led to exclusion rather than inclusion and centered whiteness over other things. Yuck. But I am thankful for the friend who confronted me about it and helped me think through the right action to take.)Anyway, the point is that I committed to being anti-racist in my teaching, having some idea at the outset what that might look like but knowing I needed to keep it at the forefront of my planning each week. And so I plugged along each week, dealing with technology failures and teaching during a pandemic, and parenting 3 children in virtual school, while attempting to live out my commitment to being anti-racist in my own college teaching.

In fall and spring semesters of academic year 2020-2021, I taught 8 sections of classes altogether. Fall saw me teaching a first year seminar, a human behavior/development class, a policy class, and a macro practice class. Spring saw me teaching two sections of the human behavior class, a senior capstone class, and a class on the history of social movements. Some classes are a more logical place for laying out an explicit anti-racist framework than others, but in all I worked to revise curricula. This looked like more integration of sources from more scholars of color, asking hard questions about inequities and waiting in silence for answers/discussion, and constantly acknowledging my privilege and asking students to think about theirs as well. It meant bringing in history, and not just watered down history, and also having discussions about the ways in which our profession has not been on the right side of justice, even though we are a “helping” profession.

Classes at my university started this week, and I am again thinking through resources, questions, class discussion prompts, speakers and more to continue being anti-racist in my teaching.

I am still doing the heart work and mind work on a personal level, as that certainly shapes what I bring to the classroom and how I engage with my students. I am sharing some of the most helpful resources below.

This image below was one of the first things I saw in the summer of 2020 when I set out on this journey. It has been really helpful in thinking about which zones I might be in with respect to different contexts, and why. This image, from Andrew M. Ibrahim MD, MSc is one way to visualize the phases of becoming anti-racist.

My favorite (where “favorite” means “helpful” in making me think and ask questions) resources on social media are: Antiracist Education Now. Teach for the Culture, Teachers for Black Lives, Urban Teachers Lounge, the Equity Matters Podcast, Abolitionist Social Work.

In terms of engagement with students, the biggest thing I would say is that I have had to grow in comfort with discomfort. There were moments of palpable tension in various classes last year…and there should continue to be. I have had to become more okay with not having “closure” with respect to conversations on certain topics. We can’t wrap up discussions on racism, oppression, white supremacy and the like in tidy ways in 50 min blocks or an hour and 15 minute blocks. We have to hold space for all the emotional and intellectual places students might be in any given moment and it is challenging.

It is hard, and I am thankful for the encouragement and support I have with colleagues in person, as well as those I have connected with virtually. If I can be of encouragement or support to you as we are on this journey of growth, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Masks, Social Policy and Reconciliation

One of the principles of Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community is Reconciliation. One way to think about reconciliation is seeking friendship and understanding with your opponent (https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/the-king-philosophy/)

Aside from the discussion of vaccination or anti-vaccination, I can’t think of anything more immediately divisive right now where I live than the issue of mask wearing. My Metro school system instituted an all mask policy (students, faculty, staff, anyone in the building) a week before school started. I was thankful for it. None of the adjacent county school systems had a policy before school started and now we are a week in for most of these systems. Some are making changes and some are not, but I have (once again) fallen guilty to the reading of social media comments posted by people and cannot really fathom the vitriol that some people have for mask wearing, as well as the vitriol that some mask wearers have for non mask wearers. Good. Land. (As my grandmother would say.)

But it did make me think of a lesson from last fall. I teach an Intro to Policy class each fall semester. Rarely is anyone excited about policy from the get go but I always have a good time and a good challenge teaching them about its relevance to social work.

Here’s my basic info to them on “what is a social policy?”:

We have some discussion on the first three examples before we get to the last one, and last fall it helped people to see how to frame the issue differently. I chose the particular image with a mask and Bible verse because I happen to teach at a faith based institution and also talk about broader values that get embedded into policy, including religious values. (I spend a whole other session talking more specifically about how we see values embedded into social policies, particularly into social welfare policies, with a <if I say so myself> cool amalgamation of videos from them to see historical and current examples of this.)

Anyway, last year after we discussed social policy examples we talked more in depth about various examples of “mask mandates” at different system levels, some of the pushback we had seen, and how data could be used well and poorly in the framing of an issue. This is a good piece from Frameworks Institute to pair with that discussion: “How to Foster Solidarity While Others Fuel Division” https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/article/topic-12-how-to-foster-solidarity-while-others-fuel-division/ This is a strategic, policy focused way of saying how we work toward reconciliation. I really appreciate the focus on advancing your big ideas instead of commenting on the chaos. (Now if I can just stop reading the other people who comment on the chaos.)

“No sense of identity” and “menaced by a lack of vision” (James Baldwin)

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, which happens to be the same year my grandmother was born. It is strange to think of them being in the same age cohort. That is a rumination for another day!

If you haven’t seen I Am Not Your Negro, do that as soon as you can. This film was so powerful, and use historical footage so well, that I loved and learned from this even more than I thought I would.

James Baldwin (01c)
“James Baldwin (01c)” by rverc is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Creative Commons)

My first encounter with James Baldwin was in high school, reading Go Tell it on the Mountain. I just got it last week to re-read again, as I know there were things I didn’t understand the first time, or things I just didn’t “tune into” as I will now reading it as an adult.

The thing I read in the last year or so that absolutely astounded me was his essay (speech transcript?) “A Talk to Teachers”, circa 1963. It is so relevant to today’s world, especially the tension and misunderstandings around critical race theory and education. You can read it in its entirety here: https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/baldwin-talk-to-teachers

One of the most powerful parts for me in this reading of it is below, not only because it is relevant to today but also because I have found this to be true in my own experience. Both as a white person learning history and as a teacher encouraging students to learn the parts of history they have not been taught before I have seen the power of learning the truth as well as believing the lies.

“…It is not really a “Negro revolution” that is upsetting the country. What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.”

(I think I am going to assign this piece to my Policy students this semester, early on, and use it as a foundation for looking at policies through our country’s history. )

Tools and weapons: “Worship of the written word”

I have been reflecting on pieces of an article and framework this summer by Tema Okun, on traits of white supremacy culture. You can delve into it here, and let me tell you, it is powerful: https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/

It has been hard to read and see elements of myself in these traits. What is helpful (and hopeful) is not just the description of the traits, but also some possible antidotes. In other words, there are some things to consider and think about doing differently, whether I am talking about my teaching, my community work, my faith, etc. Okun is clear to say that these traits have to be understood in context of each other, but acknowledges that it is helpful to pull them apart and look at them separately, and I completely agree.

One trait I resonate with is “worship of the written word” . It has been humbling to see all the ways this is manifest in my regular life: if it isn’t in a memo it doesn’t happen, being a grammar police, placing blame when people fail to respond to written communication, etc. Some of this is embedded into my life because of my profession (a teacher) but some of it is….just me. There are several antidotes shared, but one that I appreciate is: to “dedicate time to practicing and honoring other ways of knowing and expression: oral storytelling, embodied learning, visual and movement art, silence, meditation, singing, dancing” I am thinking about all the times I have filled out assessments and conducted interviews with people (or expected them to complete the forms themselves, per agency policy) but have not really had space, or taken time, to build in different types of expression.

How can I appropriately embrace the power of the written word, and shape and encourage students in their use of it? In other words, how can I use the power of written word as a tool and not a weapon? I want my students (and others) to know that writing can be powerful without being perfect. And how can I also embrace other forms of knowledge building and knowledge sharing, as well as story telling and other aspects of oral tradition? I am thinking about this as we approach the beginning of a new semester!

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

Myles Horton: Ally, accomplice, disruptor

Today is the birthday of Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Folk School (now called The Highlander Center) in Tenn. Still the site of training for organizers and activists of all ages, Highlander was heavily involved in labor rights organizing and in the the civil rights work in the 50’s and 60’s. The Highlander Folk School, among other things, was a place of respite and planning for Martin Luther King Jr., Septima Clark and Rosa Parks and others, and was also the site of voter registration training sessions for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Police file on Myles Horton, Alabama Photographs and Pictures Collection, accessed at https://digital.archives.alabama.gov/digital/collection/photo/id/1633

If Myles Horton were alive today he would probably be called an ally, or–even more active–an “accomplice”. He surely was a disruptor and someone who knew what it meant to love his neighbor. He was not afraid to get in “good trouble”. He grew up in poverty in rural Tennessee, and while he was able to gain education in a traditional sense (completing an undergraduate degree at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tn) he believed in the power of “problem posing education”, espoused by Paulo Freire. Like Freire, Myles Horton believed in the value of the relationship among teachers and learners. It is through relationship and engagement with each other and the world, along with critical thinking, that answers are found.

This is the kind of teaching and learning that changes us, and when I first learned about Horton (and Freire), I knew I had found “my” pedagogy.

This Bill Moyers interview with Myles Horton is long, but beautiful. I have shared sections of it with students in my community organizing class:

Here is the website for the Highlander Research and Education Center: https://highlandercenter.org/ where you can learn about its history as well as its current work and opportunities you can be a part of, whether it is you, your students, family, church group or others.

This is also a great resource, the SNCC Digital Gateway/ The whole site is great, but this specifically is a link to the page on Myles Horton: https://snccdigital.org/people/myles-horton/

The Water Dancer

This book was both hard (on the heart) to read and impossible to put down. This is a narrative about families who were torn apart by enslavement, and people who became family to each other. It is about people who played at Christianity and hung onto power at the expense of others” lives. It is the backdrop of our present. It is about the power of remembering and being remembered. And the words throughout are haunting and beautiful. “May you find a love that love you, even in these shackled times.”

Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story

I have written here before about Dorothy Day and her lived out principles of personalism, “the little way” and the works of mercy: https://teachingbeloved.com/2020/10/31/dorothy-day-and-some-early-thoughts-for-post-election-intentional-living/) Today while going through some old emails that I had saved, I came across a reminder for this episode of the Tokens show podcast, Dorothy Day: Traditional, Radical, Christian: https://www.tokensshow.com/blog/s1e7-dorothy-day-traditional-radical-christian

In this episode, I learned about the film Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story and found out you can access it online via PBS online: https://www.pbs.org/video/revolution-of-the-heart-the-dorothy-day-story-lwz697/

I love the history and the implications for current times (Christian faith and progressive social action) and the interviews with Dorothy’s granddaughter that shed more light on how the pursuit of justice and the true attempt to live out the reality that “I am my brother’s keeper” shaped her and her family.

My “deep gladness” and the world’s “deep hunger”, and conversations with my children

I have not felt motivation to write lately, or frankly, to do much of anything. I am struggling some with post-quarantine re-entry and while I am thankful to have the vaccine and some safety to “move about the cabin” of the world, I am not feeling quite myself in terms of being with people. I am thankful for my people who have, and who are, hanging in there with me while I go through this season.

I have been trying to be intentional about showing gratitude, even (or maybe especially) in this season and one of the things that brings me joy and helps me find purpose is working with students. I am grateful for a way to earn a living and live out my calling in the same context.

Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister and author, says that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. I believe God has called me to this place of working with students and helping them learn to engage with the world and its needs. This calling into higher education is an evolution from my initial calling into social work practice, which is a call I still hear and still heed.

I have also been hearing another call in the past few years, to speak out, in little ways and large ways, about oppression and racism. Of all my callings, this is probably the hardest one for me to feel confident in and I wonder… maybe I am not supposed to be fully confident as my discomfiture keeps me humble.

I have the honor and privilege of having a good many conversations with students about their callings (even if they use different words) and I have a gracious plenty resources on the topic. But of all the ones I have, the two I refer to the most and the two I keep coming back to are this one by Buechner, and the piece by Vincent Harding (theologian, leader in the Civil Rights movement, father, teacher, etc) entitled, simply, “I hear them calling”.

In this piece, Harding recounts the voices that have shaped him over the years: his family, the church of his childhood, his teachers, the media, the voices of his ancestors. His calling to be in the Movement made him realize how little he knew of history. His calling to be a husband and father transformed him. Throughout his life he continued to heed the call of the creation of the beloved community, and he “heard voices more loudly than ever before”.

Me, a white southern woman “of a certain age”, raised to be polite, in a faith tradition that has not historically heard the voices of women….I feel an unlikely candidate to speak out against racism and oppression. But, as Harding said repeatedly “callings are strange things”.

In my not-actively-writing phase, I have been jotting down ideas that I want to capture about this calling, and how it is showing up in my teaching and in my family life and other relationships. Hopefully, I will eventually get to writing them.

Here’s something: we finally finished our family read aloud of Stamped: Racism, Anti Racism and You. This is geared toward middle schoolers but unless you are a very intentional student of all (and I mean ALL ) of the world’s and US history there will be learning for all ages in this book. We had some good conversations that stemmed from it, and also some periods of discomfort and anger: as we should.