Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Criminalizing Kids

We often talk about a possible future of gestapo-like tactics coming to our shores if things don't change - and quickly. I share those fears and feel the mounting fascism that fuels them.

But today I'm thinking about places in the US where this fear has already come true. I hope everyone is aware of places like T. Don Hutto: America's Family Prison in Texas and the increasing number of privatized prisons being used to house thousands of detained immigrants.

And then, there's the fact that, according to Children's Defense Fund, black boys have a one in three lifetime risk of going to jail, and Latino boys a one in six lifetime risk of the same fate. Of course, for many of these young ones, getting to jail would be better than becoming a victim of the violence they live with every day on the streets. As Bob Herbert pointed out last year, 34 children were killed on the streets of Chicago in less than a year.

So often these days, we live by anecdote. But a situation last week brought much of this home to me. Did you hear about 5 year old Dennis Rivera who was handcuffed by police and taken to a psych ward for having a tantrum in kindergarten? I heard about this particular incident at Jack and Jill Politics where dnA had this to say:

This problem escapes national attention because Americans are conditioned to rationalize people of color as being meant for prison from birth, and therefore there's little outrage over treating a five year old child like a criminal if he or she is black or Latino.

The children most likely to attend a school where they can be treated like a criminal in a prison rather than a student in a school tend to be poorer and not white.

Part of this is that the school system has given up on these kids, and these schools often end up not being schools but overcrowded warehouses for human beings the city doesn't want to deal with. The appearance of order in the city's schools takes precedent over educating its students.

They don't want to teach these kids. They just want to stick them somewhere they can control (police?) them until they turn 18 or drop out, whichever comes first.

I can feel dnA's anger in this post. We all know that there are good people doing great things in some of these schools. But overall based on my experience, I think these words speak loudly and truthfully to what is happening to our African American and Latino kids in urban areas. Just as many of us needed to be awakened to the prevalence of racial profiling by law enforcement and the dangers of "driving while black," I think we now need to recognize that thousands of children every day in our urban public schools, libraries, parks and streets are being criminalized for "growing up black/brown" and doing things that previously would have resulted in detention at school and/or grounding by our parents.

Unfortunately we have grown accustomed to the idea of armed police officers and metal detectors in our schools. And I recently wrote about this kind of thing being imported to our public libraries as well. One of the bi-products of these choices we're making out of fear is that we increasingly criminalize the behaviors of our children (especially those of color) and fuel the Cradle to Prison Pipeline that the Children's Defense Fund is talking about.

From what I have seen, the problem with changing these circumstances is that the parents of these children do not have a voice in our systems. Some of that is due to things like addiction and mental illness. But a lot of it is also the result of a complete lack of trust that any of us will listen or that anything better can happen. We've recently been talking to staff at our local office of the Children's Defense Fund. The national office that published the report I linked to above is trying to work with local chapters to raise awareness about this problem and mobilize coalitions to get busy trying to change things. If you'd like to get involved, I'd suggest you call the CFD office nearest you.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Many of you might have already seen the video by Annie Leonard titled The Story of Stuff. If not, I highly recommend it (you can watch the whole thing at the link). She walks us through the extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal of stuff and what its doing to our world in a way that is both informative and engaging. But I'd like to focus on the stage of consumption.

The quote from Victor Lebow really grabbed me:

Our enormously productive economy...demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and using of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption...we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.

It seems that Lebow may have been being more descriptive that prescriptive with that statement, but in either case, I think his words hold true for our culture today. He also hints at the idea that the consumer addiction that is destroying our lives and the planet will not be challenged until we understand its roots in our spiritual and ego satisfactions.

A couple of years ago I read a book that had a profound impact on me. Its by Lynne Twist and is titled The Soul of Money. The basis of the book is a contrast between the mind-sets of scarcity and sufficiency.

Here's how Twist talks about scarcity:

Whether we live in resource-poor circumstances or resource-rich ones, even if we're loaded with more money or goods or everything you could possibly dream of wanting or needing, we live with scarcity as an underlying assumption. It is an unquestioned, sometimes even unspoken, defining condition of life. It is not even that we necessarily experience a lack of something, but that scarcity as a chronic sense of inadequacy about life becomes the very place from which we think and act and live in the world. It shapes our deepest sense of ourselves, and becomes the lens through which we experience life...

This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life, and it is deeply embedded in our relationship with money. In the mind-set of scarcity, our relationship with money is an expression of fear; a fear that drives us in an endless and unfulfilling chase for more, or into compromises that promise a way out of the chase or discomfort around money. In the chase or in the compromises we break from our wholeness and natural integrity. We abandon our soul and grow more and more distanced from our core values and highest commitments. We find ourselves trapped in a cycle of disconnection and dissatisfaction.

In contrast, here are some of Twist's words about sufficiency:

We each have the choice in any setting to step back and let go of the mind-set of scarcity. Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don't mean a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn't two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn't a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn't an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, and a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough...

When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete...

When we let go of the chase for more, and consciously examine and experience the resources we already have, we discover our resources are deeper than we knew or imagined.

emphasis mine

In the context of sufficiency, we find beautiful music playing just one flight down.

There in this place
where your arms unfold
here at last
you see your ancient face
now you know
now you know.

And when we find that music, we also find compassion and generosity. Here's Twist again:

The human hand must be open to receive, but also to give and to touch. A human heart must also open to receive as well as to give and touch another heart. That openness and reciprocation, that image of the open hand and heart, connects us not just to others, but to the feeling of fullness and sufficiency in ourselves.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

There is a better way

Our local public libraries in this city are on the verge of hiring armed police officers and its not because they want them to have more reading time. These folks are scared of the young people who recently began spending more time in the libraries, primarily to get access to the internet. Our staff have been talking with folks at the libraries about alternatives to this plan, and I'm happy to tell you that the leadership is interested in hearing more.

We provided a training to some of the staff in the library across the street from us and it was well received. They report to us that after resorting to calling the cops at least once a week due to unruly behavior of kids in their library, since the training this summer, they have not called them once. They also told a wonderful story of just one of the changes they made. After the training they realized that many of the problems with young people began while they were waiting in line to get on a computer. With this information, they decided to place Sudoko puzzle books and a checkers set where kids were waiting in order to give them something to do. And, whala...problem solved.

Now maybe that's just an interesting story in and of itself, but I think its also a metaphor about how we are making all the wrong choices in our fearful attempts to establish security in this world. Whether its a "lock 'em up" mentality to solve all social ills, a "build a wall" mentality in our immigration policy, or a "shoot 'em up" mentality in response to perceived international threats, we seem to keep playing the same old song, regardless of how ruinous the results.

The heart of the training we provided to library staff was based on research into parenting styles that breaks down approaches based on structure (demands) and responsiveness. Here's a little summary:

Neglectful parents are neither responsive nor demanding. They do not support or encourage their child's self-regulation, and they often fail to monitor or supervise the child's behavior. They are uninvolved.

Permissive parents are responsive, warm, accepting, and child-centered, but non-demanding. They lack parental control.

Authoritarian parents are demanding, but not responsive. They show little trust toward their children, and their way of engagement is strictly adult-centered. These parents often fear losing control, and they discourage open communication.

Authoritative parents are demanding and responsive, controlling but not restrictive. This child-centered pattern includes high parental involvement, interest, and active participation in the child's life; open communication; trust and acceptance; encouragement of psychological autonomy; and awareness of where children are, with whom, and what they are doing.

The librarians who went to the training realized that they were being permissive in ignoring problem behavior until it got out of control. Then, they brought in the authoritarians, or the cops, to threaten or use physical force to solve the problem. When they adopted the authoritative approach, they began to be responsive to the needs of the young people and looked for ways to solve the problem, all while being clear in their expectations about appropriate behavior.

So lets take a moment and apply these concepts to some of our current political issues. The neglectful people are not really in the game at this point. Perhaps that category can be applied to those in this country that continue to enjoy their lifestyle and keep their heads in the sand about what it is costing us in the world today.

Very often liberals are accused (rightly so in my mind) of being too permissive. There are justifiable criticisms of those who grant unqualified support to folks like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Conservatives and libertarians also engage in a permissive style when they, like the librarians, ignore the roots of problem development and then react too late with an authoritarian show of force.

But perhaps the style that is most overwhelming in our political scene today is authoritarianism. The same type of response that says we need armed cops in libraries is what is driving our "global war on terrorism." Its the knee-jerk thinking that a show of force will stop any kind of rebellion, no matter what the root causes. The lack of engagement in problem solving makes people think the only option is one of violence to stop the threat. And, as we are seeing in almost every sphere where it is used, ITS NOT WORKING.

The alternative is an authoritative approach - one that establishes expectations, engages in dialogue, and is responsive. So here's something revolutionary for those folks in DC...we can say that blowing people up, whether its in NYC, Iraq, Israel, the West Bank, or Darfur is wrong. AND we can talk to people, observe the situations, learn from history, etc., and try to find solutions to the problems that are creating the violence. This does not have to be an either/or question.

As a small example, I recently wrote an essay about a man named Greg Mortenson who builds schools for kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Imagine the lives and money that could be saved if we truly wanted to join with the people of the Middle East and took the time to engage them over Three Cups of Tea.

And on a more grand scale, JFK expressed it so beautifully in his inaugural address.


For me January is a time of reflection. Not because of New Years, since I'm not one for resolutions, especially those requiring will power - something I don't put much stock in. There are other reasons for this state I'm in today.

One of the prompts for reflection is that I celebrate my anniversary with the non-profit I work for every year this month. And as of today, I've been working with the same organization for 19 years, 17 of those as the Executive Director. I know that's unheard of in this day and age. As I explained to our staff this week, at about 10 years I began to feel those questions about "where am I going with all this." Our culture expects us to want more/bigger/better all the time. But I've been content with what I do professionally. More than that, I feel lucky to get paid to do work that is a passion of mine. Some have to work to sustain themselves and their families. I get to work in a job where I'm contributing to changing the little corner of the world I live in - and that's as good as it gets as far as I'm concerned.

And with the anniversary comes the performance review. But this year its even bigger than that. We're in the midst of preparing for strategic planning and have recently completed an "environmental scan" of our agency and our work. This week I got the feedback on all of that in preparation for the planning. I suppose I ought to take it all objectively, but I'm not up to that today. Since I tend to put my heart, soul and mind into my work, how other people view that is important to me.

Finally there is the personal. I have a birthday this month and will turn 54. No particular milestone this year. But birthdays are always a time of reflection, aren't they? At our bookgroup meeting last week we spent some time talking about the personal work we've done in our lives. I was commenting that I've come a long way in changing just about everything I had grown to think and believe about myself and the world in the last 25 years or so. At one point I think I said "enough." At least, enough about me already. I know there are other "issues" I could tackle in my life, but its time to get on with living. Perhaps I've come as far as I want to go in this life and I'll tackle the rest next time around. But there are ghosts from the past that still haunt my dreams and rear their ugly head when I least expect it.

All of this reflecting led me back to one of my favorite poems by Marge Piercy. She definitely speaks to me today. There are a lot of different threads to this idea of a "strong woman." And I feel them all in my reflection today.

For strong women

A strong woman is a woman who is straining.
A strong woman is a woman standing
on tiptoe and lifting a barbell
while trying to sing Boris Godunov.
A strong woman is a woman at work
cleaning out the cesspool of the ages,
and while she shovels, she talks about
how she doesn't mind crying, it opens
the ducts of the eyes, and throwing up
develops the stomach muscles, and
she goes on shoveling with tears
in her nose.

A strong woman is a woman in whose head
a voice is repeating, I told you so,
ugly, bad girl, bitch, nag, shrill, witch,
ballbuster, nobody will ever love you back,
why aren't you feminine, why are
you soft, why aren't you quiet, why
aren't you dead?

A strong woman is a woman determined
to do something others are determined
not be done. She is pushing up on the bottom
of a lead coffin lid, She is trying to raise
a manhole cover with her head, she is trying
to butt her way through a steel wall.
Her head hurts. People waiting for the hole
to be made say, hurry, you're so strong.

A strong woman is a woman bleeding
inside. A strong woman is a woman making
herself strong every morning while her teeth
loosen and her back throbs. Every baby,
a tooth, midwives used to say, and now
every battle a scar. A strong woman
is a mass of scar tissue that aches
when it rains and wounds that bleed
when you bump them and memories that get up
in the night and pace in boots to and fro.

A strong woman is a woman who craves love
like oxygen or she turns blue choking.
A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.

What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which is issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blog Voices This Week 1/13/08

Anyone who has been closely watching the primaries over the last two weeks probably feels like you've been riding a roller-coaster. This time last week everyone was ready to anoint Obama as the next president and the media was full of misogynist platitudes about Clinton. Then came her emotional moment and win in the New Hampshire primary. And now the intersection of race and gender is causing no end of turmoil.

In the middle of all this, I thought it would be interesting to listen to those in our midst who live at that intersection of race and gender every day - women of color. When I visited some of their blogs, I found that a common theme was their reaction to an op-ed in the New York Times last Tuesday by Gloria Steinem titled Women Are Never Front-Runners. In order to set the stage, its probably best to click through and read the whole editorial. But I'll provide a few of her statements that were most commented on by the blogs that I visited.

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.

That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. That’s why Senators Clinton and Obama have to be careful not to let a healthy debate turn into the kind of hostility that the news media love. Both will need a coalition of outsiders to win a general election. The abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: “I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.”

I'd like to start with some powerful words by Shark-Fu at AngryBlackBitch:

After reading Steinem’s Op-Ed I felt invisible…as if black and woman can’t exist in the same body. I felt undocumented…as if the history of blacks and the history of women have nothing to do with the history of black women.

When I read “Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).” I felt both attacked and ignored at the same time.

I think of the women and men in my family who were not extended the protected vote until 1965. I wince at the lack of acknowledgment for the black women of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery who had to march with their brothers in the 1960s to attain the vote because the suffrage movement abandoned them in a Southern strategy to get the vote in 1920.

And there it is again…that invisibility; like a brutal weight that I am so bloody tired of carrying.

What worries me is that this is the kind of article that makes some black women wary of feminism…wary of the sisterhood…because eventually, just give it time, it will all come down to black and white or women and men with black women vanished from the equation.

Next, let's hear from Sudy at A Womyn's Ecdysis:

Look, I'm not going to go head to head with Steinem and argue what is most pressing for womyn in America - race or gender. What I do know is that as a US womyn of color living in this country is that the two are so inexplicably interlaced that I resist ANY individual that pitts once against the other, especially a White mainstream feminist. What I find most often, too, is women like Steinem (White liberal women) call gender over race...

There's a reason why I use the word gender/ace as one entity. I cannot separate the two.

And finally, here's some of the conclusion of an essay by Jennifer Fang at Racialicious:

Ultimately, however, Steinem’s piece (intentionally or unintentionally) draws a line in the sand between people of colour and women, essentially disregarding the everyday racism faced by Black and Brown people, and claiming the Oppression Olympics gold medal for women. Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women, Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender. Is it no wonder, then, that women of colour have long felt alienated by feminists like Steinem? Where do we fit when we’re being asked to choose between Obama and Clinton as a metaphor for race versus gender? And how are we supposed to react when an incorrect choice labels us as “less radical”?

Gloria Steinem wants us to able to say we’re supporting Senator Hillary Clinton because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman. But if we’re really ready to take “equal pride in breaking all the barriers”, then how can we be expected to make the call between voting for these candidates based even in part on their identity? Regardless of whom we decide on, by making the identity politics of our candidate a factor in our decision, we are implicitly establishing a “separate and unequal” relationship between race and gender barriers that only fuels the continued clash between race activists and feminists.

Today I bring you these words from our sisters and ask you to take a moment to contemplate the invisibility of their situation in these binary codes that are used to divide us. These voices need to be brought into the conversation if we are ever going to understand the reality that surrounds us. It might sound a bit corny after all these years, but my vision for today is of Aretha and Annie...and sisterhood.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Blog Voices This Week 1/6/08

I remember back in 1984 when rumors started flying that Walter Mondale might pick a woman to run with him on the democratic ticket. My reaction was to be completely dismissive; a sort of "what's so new about a woman in the back-up role?" kind of thing.

And then I sat and watched as he nominated Geraldine Ferraro...and I cried.

What got released in me that day was something that for 30 years told me that I didn't belong, didn't have a place at the table. I saw myself in Geraldine Ferraro. And all of the sudden I felt included in the scheme of things in a way I never had before.

I saw that same feeling on the faces of African American delegates to the '88 Democratic Convention when Jesse Jackson spoke. And since it had happened to me only 4 years previously, I recognized the look.

I don't want to be alienating to anyone, but the reality is that white heterosexual men in this country don't have a point of reference for this kind of experience. You have grown up seeing yourselves represented in every position of power that can be imagined. But perhaps with some empathy, you can understand a bit of what it feels like to have that sense of marginalization being communicated every day in ways that sometimes are overt, but most often covert, to the point that the feeling sinks deep into your bones and you don't even notice all the time that its there.

And then one day POW!!! Someone like Ferraro or Jackson breaks through...and the world of possibilities opens up again.

For the past day or so I've been reading blogs written by African Americans to see what they are saying about the Obama victory in the Iowa caucuses this week. Some didn't even mention it. Some don't support or trust him. But for many, they shared that feeling of anticipation that perhaps the door is breaking open, the one that says you belong. Lets take a look.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Skeptical Brotha:

I’m sorry I took too long, but as Gene Robinson of the Washington Post has said, this is a “Goosebumps moment.” As I write and listen once more to the victory speech, the tears are coming and I feel as emotional as a pregnant woman does. I will be in church on Sunday morning and nobody will be able to hold me down because I will be a shouting fool.

I needed this as my grandparents needed Martin and Malcolm. I needed this because I need to believe in something again. I needed this because my spirit has been shattered, my joy has been stolen, and my hope in my country destroyed...

Basking in the glow of this historical moment, one I’ve dreamed of for 25 years, I’ve overcome my bitter and sarcastic cynicism, and I have decided to endorse Barack Obama for President of the United States.

dnA over at Jack and Jill Politics sums up "The View from Harlem" this way:

All the Obama volunteers told me how hard it was, even in Harlem, to convince folks that an Obama presidency was possible. Not just because Harlem now lies in the shadow of the Clinton building, but because people in Harlem's barbershops, restaurants and schools didn't think a black man could win. The very circumstances of our own lives pushes the possibility past the realm of belief.

But Harlem believed last night. We all believed last night.

But not everyone is won over just yet. Here's what The Field Negro had to say:

Damn it Barrack, I wish you wouldn't do this. I really do.

You need to stop teasing all these black folks and well meaning white folks out here.

I caught your little act in Iowa last night, and it was impressive. I gotta give it to you my man, you have some skills.

Honestly, my ankles are hurting from jumping on and off your damn bandwagon. And right now I am feeling like jumping on again. People have been telling me that I should stop being so cynical and get on board the Obama train but.....I mean I am just saying. Having a black Prez would be cool and all (at least a half a one anyway). But will having a black Prez cause our children to stop popping each other like they are all living in a video game? Will it cause one more misguided teenager to put on some protection before he has sex with some poor fatherless girl? Will it stop corporations from being greedy? And will it stop that racist cop or DA from doing something he would have if a white Prez was in the White House? I am pretty sure it won't. Our problems are much deeper than having one of us acting as commander in chief.

Still, the symbolism would be nice. And it would say something about A-merry-ca. I for one would have to reconsider some of my views of A-merry-ca and all the people in it. I would certainly start looking at my white neighbors in a more positive light. After all, if I am going to rip them when I think they do wrong, I have to praise them when they do right.

So I might ride with the half and half man for now, but I don't want to get too involved, because in the back of my mind I am still aware of where I live.

But behind the sense of celebration for some and doubt for others comes the fear. If you didn't check out the article by Lowermanhattanite titled Pride and Palpitations that budhy linked to yesterday, I highly recommend it to you. Here's a bit of it:

But I want you to understand what that nervousness and yes, I'll say it—fear was about as Barack Obama thanked his supporters and urged them onward. I don't know if you'll ever really understand it and why it comes so quickly to the fore for Black folks. I guess, you need only to look at not distant, but recent American history and how deadly cruel it has been to Black people on the cusp of busting a door wide open...

We have developed an unfortunate Pavlovian response to the repeated sight of our best and brightest being blown away like so many dandelion bits in the wind.

We have our moments of pride, and then...then, those uncontrollable palpitations. Worrying about when the ax will fall. Or the grenade. Or the bullet's sharp crack, the diving security and guests, and the inevitable cut to a shocked newsroom.

And finally, those who are definitely NOT on the Obama bandwagon are most often quoting an article by Grace Lee Boggs titled Is Obama Black Enough? She begins by giving a short synopsis of the "civil rights movement" followed by the search for black leaders and ends with this:

But neither Obama's ethnicity or Hillary's gender is enough to earn my support. Neither is calling on the American people to confront our materialism and militarism or challenging and proposing alternatives to corporate globalization. At this critical period in human history that is what we should be requiring of ourselves and of any presidential candidate, whatever their race, gender or religion.

Fortunately new leadership is emerging out of obscurity, at the grassroots level, building community instead of running for office.

So, there you have a bit of a summary of the diversosphere blog-talk about Obama. No matter what happens with his candidacy, the ground beneath us shifted a bit last week. We'll have to wait and see how it settles.

The root of the problem is a theology that enables sexual abuse

As someone who was raised in a white evangelical Christian family and church, it deeply saddens me every time we hear that another leader o...