Rebel: Challenging our Assumptions through “Yes and…” Giving

Grappling with the invisible benefits that I earned through the lottery of birth means I also have to deal with uncomfortable topics of money and status. Over time, I have realized that this comes from the fact of my upbringing and the narrative of the family I have built. My husband and I are both from families where work ethic was an important part of our narrative – my father worked his way up from challenging circumstances to find financial success and my husband’s Irish Catholic father believed hard work and character were foundational to building the nest egg that feeds our generation. So, separating out hard work from socio-economic status is a difficult but important process for me.

Again, I am not always awesome at this. My students, who are the first generation in their families to attend college, have been important in changing my perspectives. Their parents work incredibly hard, making sacrifices I could not imagine – sending your child to Eastside’s boarding program out of 8th grade! I can’t imagine! As I examined what is different between the ethic they show and that my father taught me, there it not much. Working hard resonates across both. But, I see that race plays a huge part in why some people find financial gain at the end of struggle and others don’t. This is part of Eastside’s mission that I think is most powerful – give these students every privilege and expectation that are implicit in the schooling at the most prestigious (and largely white) private schools, and let these children shine. There are certainly pros and cons to this model, but it is what we do, very well, and we are seeing the fruits of our labor as students create their own success on their own terms.

I am so glad that I can contribute at Eastside as a teacher, and I don’t have to worry about the fund-raising work. Asking for money makes me crazy uncomfortable. Yet, in my life with my kids in school, I am asked for money all of the time. I was shocked when entering the school district the dollar amount that was asked (and received) from all families each year as voluntary contributions. $1000 per year… per child… to the district plus other giving directly to the school site. It was a lot to take in as I watched my students struggle to make the parent contribution of $250 per year at Eastside.

This vast divide made my brain split in two. How could I be members of both of these communities?!? So many realizations came piling in on me – how my students must feel in college surrounded by students who were used to this sort of giving, how much we have equated quality of education by the dollars put toward the program, how the donations of food and time are valued- it was a lot. And to know that the PTA had a budget overflow from one year to the next… my head spins to think about how these two worlds are so physically close, yet so far apart.

I told myself early on that as my kids got older, I would encourage others around me to engage in “Yes, and…” giving. Meaning, it is great to support the learning environment of your own child AND where can you also give to help a child who does not have the same advantages. As I say all the time, my children don’t need me to give money to their schools. They have two college educated parents and early childhood literacy skills that work particularly heavily in their favor, not to mention the other privileges of race and zip code. What we all need is to give to the schools and programs where there are not two college educated parents, because if those students are better prepared, schools will become more diverse and rigorous for everyone. (Here, I could and often do go into a rabbit hole of unfounded fear, college admissions and assumptions about access that I will save for another time…)

In my mind, giving is better if it is not performative. This is where the challenge comes. There is a lot of celebration and ceremony around large giving events – galas, auctions, dinners, etc – and connecting with others who care about the same cause is so important to building community and raising the status of organizations often overlooked. But, I challenge myself and others to find small ways to give quietly to programs that benefit communities that I am not necessarily a part of. How do I find these? Usually through my generous former students who highlight charities in the communities where they are living and working that echo the challenges they faced as children. It takes some work, and requires that I follow people on social media to see what matters to them.

If you want to know more about giving to causes outside of your daily lives, I would recommend that you start by adding different voices to your social media feed. Follow celebrities, see who they follow or when they post meaningful messages from voices you are unfamiliar with. The “Pass the Mic” movement on Instagram was very helpful in this regard – many public figures that I follow – including Ellen and others – had a takeover of their page by a woman of color for a day or two. I found a lot of great ideas and movements that way. If you come across a movement you are particularly interested in, let me know. I would love to add it to my list.

To use an overused somewhat charged phrase, when something is making you uncomfortable “Lean In” to that discomfort with “Why” questions. Then, see if you can find answers that help you grapple with the discomfort. I still have a lot of unresolved feelings about the polar nature of my work and home worlds, but I try to sit with them to see what I can learn and how I can better understand the path to connecting them.

Proud (Nerdy) Mom Moment

My son Andrew is going to be a junior in high school. I find that wildly unbelievable, as do many of my coworkers and friends that have known him since he was being carried around the high school campus by my students and being taught to say as much slang as they could get him to mimic before I caught on. Most of the time, I take his growing up for granted, especially during Shelter in Place, because I see him every day, and now that he is a teenager, he is in a world I know something about (even though he will tell you that I puzzle him just as much as any other teen puzzles their parent).

So, when I listened to him as a contributor to his second podcast on My Digital Tat2’s Media in the Middle series, I was taken aback by hearing him in his own context, saying things that were interesting to me as an educator and as a parent, in addition to as his parent. I have always been fascinated by the way that adolescents form their world views and feel so fortunate to see it, but watching it as a parent is so amazing, gratifying, and with all things child-related, puzzling. He remembers things that I clearly don’t, but he also catches things I didn’t know he did. It makes me proud to hear him state opinions, listen to others’ and take the risk of speaking up.

I am super proud of all my kids, and will surely brag on them another time, but I found this episode very timely and a good reminder about what teens are going through right now and what we can learn about what they see adults doing. I have to give a huge shout out to My Digital Tat2 for all that I’ve learned from them and the world they’ve opened up to my kids!

Recharge: It turns out, I like to hit things!!!

During Shelter in Place, I have been able to insert time to work out into my schedule that was once filled with a significant amount of carting children to sporting events. Fortuitously, Box Union, a company started by a college friend in LA, began their digital platform a couple of weeks into our time at home. I have been watching Box Union from afar via Instagram posts, but as I am never in LA, I knew I would not be able to make it in studio and am really too lazy to look for a boxing studio nearby, so I just double clicked and scrolled.

But once the classes went digital and I had some more free time at home, I was hooked. I really like punching at things! I used to take a kickboxing class back in the Tae Bo days (oh, the 90s…), but this is next level. I am actually doing HIIT workouts! I don’t whine at Burpees… though I still hate them and really hate Mountain Climbers. The music and the trainers make it so fun that I am doing boxing workouts 4-5 days a week and we just got a free-standing heavy bag for our living room! What?!? Upside: my children can now take their aggressions out on the bag instead of their siblings’ faces!!! YAY!!!

“Take THAT annoying sibling!!!”

I am not an Instagram Fitness Influencer (which should surprise exactly zero people) and I do not get any referral benefits, so know that I am recommending that you check this out because I am supremely addicted to it in the moment. 🙂 They have a 2 week free trial and they also support some great causes with special work-outs and donation matching. Check them out!

Read & Rebel: Science Fiction/Fantasy and Social Change

This morning, I had set out with the intention of writing about why I think everyone should read Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi followed by the second book in the series, Children of Virtue and Vengeance. Between my intention and the actual time when I was able to sit down to write, my friend the ravenous and omnivorous reader Anna sent me this article by Cree Myles, “If You Really Want to Unlearn Racism, Read Black Sci-Fi Authors” on The Mary Sue. Take a minute and read this insightful piece that far better articulates why reading Fiction, particularly Science Fiction, is such an important part of the process for people to truly become anti-racist in practice.

The thing that stood out to me about this essay is how precisely Myles locates the need to broaden our scope to include fiction as we journey through introspection. She writes,

“Nonfiction, while important, still affords you the comfort of looking at the problem from the outside. You get to intellectualize the grief instead of sit in it. You can passively observe the percentages and statistics instead of giving the numbers names and mourning families. Instead of being one of the names or mourning family members. You get to step away.”

Cree Myles, “If You Really Want to Unlearn Racism, Read Black Sci-Fi Authors” on The Mary Sue

Fiction serves so many purposes in our lives, including entertainment, but its true power lies in its ability to build empathy. If you want, I am happy to send you some research in this arena – how the brain reacts to reading fiction and what its impact is on our psychology. But, I think you can mine your own experiences and consider which fictional characters carried you through important moments or that came to mind when you met someone new or helped a friend in need. The ability of fiction to transport us into another’s feelings and to inhabit their world is critical to our personal well being but also to our citizenship in our communities.

Myles’ article pinpointed the unique quality of science fiction and fantasy to criticize, problematize and fantasize about necessary social change.

“Informational text is important, but emotional text is crucial. While we fight for the world of our dreams, we should read pieces from the people who have already created it.”

Cree Myles, “If You Really Want to Unlearn Racism, Read Black Sci-Fi Authors” on The Mary Sue

This is what compels me most about Adeyemi’s debut work Children of Blood and Bone and the striking follow-up Children of Virtue and Vengeance (which I enjoyed even more). There is a healthy blend of grappling with reality and dreaming of the ideal, which is equally complex and wrought with generational trauma. The books are squarely in the genre of Fantasy – both steeped in West African Mythologies and African American History, and the layered characters who struggle to make progress while simultaneously grappling with their inheritance as children of their parents in their communities. Magic is at the center of this story, literally and figuratively, as the story bounces between narration of Zelie, who is fighting for her magical inheritance, and Amari and Inan, royal siblings whose family brought about the end to magic but who each see a different truth for the future.

Young Adult Fantasy is not for everyone, but I think this one is worth everyone’s time, particularly in reading the author’s note about what compelled her to write this novel. I will leave you to discover that on your own, but it really adjusted my lens and deepened my experience with the book, and her insight is part of why I feel compelled to write about these books in this moment.

You should also read Octavia Butler’s Kindred. It is required reading for our sophomores, and I feel it should be required reading in all American High Schools. More in a future installment…

Rebel: Accepting (and then Correcting) Mistakes

In the work of learning to grapple with the impact of my whiteness in all spaces, I have to be at one with the idea that I am going to make mistakes. Often. I am not one who likes making mistakes. When I started to learn about mindset work, I realize that much of my educational career was spent in a fixed mindset in environments that rewarded my thought that learning was something people were naturally good or not so good at. Clearly, that is a problematic mindset in a million ways when going into teaching, and I quickly had to reprogram my brain around ideas of learning that were built on a broader definition of success.

As I approach anti-racist work in my own life and in my practice as a teacher, I have to find ways to root out the racism that exists in me. The biggest area of difficulty for me is in using language. I am a verbal processor – I talk fast and sometimes trip over my words. For someone whose professional life revolves around language use, I can be downright sloppy in my spoken language. So, it is the under-the-surface structurally racist uses of words and phrasing that are my kryptonite.

This is why I find Rachel Cargle’s work, in particular, her posts on Instagram, so powerful. Her practice of closely analyzing assumptions shows how comments become biting reminders of division rather than conversation. I strongly encourage you to follow her and to financially support her curriculum, The Great Unlearn. I find this quote particularly powerful for how she addresses “tone.”

View this post on Instagram

Good morning 🌞 • Just a quick Saturday School lesson for you, loves. • This is a comment I recently received. I wanted to offer an analysis for those who are new to this space and also for all who might be looking for language as they continue in this work. • 1. Linda went directly into the Angry Black Woman trope, a classic American stereotype reinforced through history in various media that intentionally is juxtaposed to the innocent blond haired blue eyed white woman, on a post where I simply said “I don’t want your love and light unless it comes with solidarity and action”. In a practice of gaslighting she completely overlooked the hostility of the actual racism I was addressing and instead deemed my response inappropriate. • 2. She then goes on to say that because of my hostility, an angry backlash can be anticipated. So she is irrationally justifying the feelings of white people and their “anticipated angry backlash” to my post yet is insisting that I not have any type of angry backlash to the racism I’m here to address. Another clear example of the delusion that white feelings matter more than black lives & experiences. This type of rhetoric lends to the often deadly results of white tears. Examples include when white people call the police on black people for no reason. They don’t “feel” like seeing a black person in a particular space so they put them in the direct danger of the American police force. • 3. She then assumes that my work here is to gain a “wide audience”. This misconception speaks to the reason I have to constantly remind people that social media is simply a tool, it’s not “the work”. The work is to keep black bodies alive, to find black liberation…..not to grasp for a social media audience. • 4. She then goes on to very directly tone police me. She advises me that antiracism work won’t be of interest to white people unless it is said in a tone that they find palatable. These types of respectability politics play out in various ways in society and here Linda made it clear that her interest in fighting against black pain and oppression is limited to how comfortable she is in the process. • Happy weekend, ya’ll 🙏🏾

A post shared by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle (@rachel.cargle) on

Rachel Cargle on Instagram

As a teacher of writing, I have made this mistake and will make it again. It is a tricky line – the relationship between audience and purpose is one of the most tense and challenging areas where we grow our voices as writers. Most of the time, these arguments have to do with students sounding “whiny”, but sometimes, I have fallen short when criticizing a student’s work on what is a more deeply held value – sometimes one of faith or culture that is so deep in their ethos that I cannot approach it as it is not my lived experience. Her comment on “the work” is often what is what I am trying to drive at, but we end up in the emotion, and that may be non-negotiable as far as the student is concerned.

More often, these mistakes come in asking a student, inadvertently, a question or using a written example that is not designed to draw attention to the ways that society perceives them, but in action does. Once, early in my teaching, I referred to teenagers hanging out down on the corner in a vocab exercise, for which a student thoroughly chastised me. I did not know that meant selling drugs, and the sentence had become highly offensive to her. Then, I didn’t handle the situation the way that I would now. Fortunately, I was able to restore trust after a few weeks of truly demonstrating that I wanted to be better.

Here is the most important thing I have learned from making a lot of mistakes in this area: apologize but don’t expect acceptance. First, I try to apologize in the moment. Then, I have to leave the person to decide whether they accept my apology, which they are well within their right to reject. But, if the moment has passed, I have to just sit with the fact that I screwed up.

As Cargle and others point out, it is not the job of the person of color in my conversation to do the emotional labor associated with my inability to recognize the remnants of structural racism in my language. That is my work as a “well-intentioned” white woman. Explaining my intentions, rationalizing my mistake, pushing for their acceptance all require something of that person. My guilt is mine and only I can assuage it. I do this by verbally processing with a white, anti-racist colleague who helps me brainstorm ways to be more mindful and unravel the institutional practices that have shaped my implicit practices of language. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by excellent professionals who have made it their work to be anti-racist in all that they do, and they keep teaching me by giving me suggestions and leading me to voices of color who explain the needs of the communities who are struggling.

It is imperfect work, but I am committed to keep trying to be better and to dismantle the structures in society to allow these things to go unchecked. Then, we can aspire to future generations who have not internalized these divisions that continue to oppress.

Read: Unpacking My History

People who know me know that I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yes, that Tulsa that is dominating headlines this week as the site of Trump’s campaign kick-off. I have a complicated relationship with my Oklahoma heritage (that I am sure to write more about as I continue), but needless to say, like many others from my generation, I am educating myself now about the Tulsa Race Massacre.

I was never taught about this part of Tulsa history as a child. I learned about the land run, which we were required to recreate on the playground in 4th grade – a day I thankfully missed due to illness. I understood the story of the Sooner mascot for OU, the illegal land-grabbers celebrated as underdog heroes, an idea that my middle school mind began to grate against before our move to California. But I knew nothing of the complicated Black history of the community I lived in.

This is unsurprising. I had a rich education in racism from an early age – not due to cruelty from my kind and thoughtful parents but rather from living where I did, when I did. I heard blatantly racist comments from older generations of my family that I knew were horrible but had no language to confront. It took me many years including graduate school and my early years of teaching to start unraveling and constructing ways that I think about race. Regardless, I was shocked as a graduate student in the early 2000s to begin learning about the horrors of the fate of Greenwood.

For those of you unfamiliar with this story, I will give you a very short summary with hopes that you will go and read as much as you can. Greenwood was considered America’s “Black Wall Street” in the early 1920s. I was an economically and culturally Black enclave thriving in the middle of a metropolis where the KKK was growing at record speed. On May 30, 1921, this all came to an end after a white mob burned the neighborhood to the ground, killed an estimated 300 people and displaced more than 8000 people. The mass excavation of a suspected, unmarked burial site of those killed in Greenwood was recently approved and had to halt due to COVID-19.

Today, the New York Times published an historical overview of the event that is a good starting place to learning about Greenwood, with links to other resources. I have on my to-do list to listen to the Smithsonian’s podcast on this topic, and to explore some more of the first person accounts of the event. I would also suggest that you follow Michael Harriot on Twitter; he is a powerful communicator about pieces of Black history in America that go missing from white education and are necessary for all Americans to learn. Lastly, this weekend, HBO is streaming the second season of Watchmen for free. It is set with the Tulsa Race Massacre as the backdrop.

Taking responsibility for this part of my history is important to me. I think it is also important to continue to seek the first person accounts from Black historians – while my journey may begin with traditionally white sources, I seek out those voices of the history for whom it is primary. I don’t always land on the right path first, but I know to keep trying. I think this is important in all that we do to educate ourselves about those who history have tried to erase.

Rebel: Juneteenth

Clearly, there is a lot of thinking to be done right now. It is long overdue and honestly, I’m overwhelmed. But, I took to heart the recommendation that I saw on an Instagram post of one of the voices I have recently starting following on thoughts in anti-racism. (Sorry that I cannot give them credit right now – I will have a future post on people I am currently following on social media that provide some interesting food for thought.) It said to take Juneteenth as an opportunity to learn about something that will help in the work ahead.

So, in addition to taking some time later today to learn about the historical significance of Juneteenth and its origins, I took some time this morning to catch up on a webcast that I missed yesterday from the Commonwealth Club. I strongly recommend that you all watch “Parenting in Support of Black Lives: How to Build a Just Future for Kids (and How Media Can Help)”. This conversation between Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith, thoughtfully facilitated by Julie Lythcott-Haims, has some deep, foundational thinking in how to imbed anti-racism in our interactions with our families and the challenges faced by parents of children who identify in the umbrella of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color).

Once you have watched, let me know your thoughts. I will post some of my reactions in a future post.