Random babble

Losing our humanity one click at a time, or What has social media wrought?

The year was 1998 and I had returned to school to work on my undergraduate degree. It was my second year in when I took a research class that required being online. Let me refresh your memory: In 1998, less than half of U.S. households had personal computers, barely a third of Americans had cell phones, and smartphones didn’t exist. Social media as we know it didn’t exist. Livejournal wasn’t even created until 1999. It was still a fairly analog world.

However, I fell in love with the Internet despite the fact that most of the people in my life were utterly confused by my fascination with it.  In a few short years I would become immersed in discussion boards that ranged the gamut from learning how to manage my hair in its natural state to learning about my mother’s cancer and, later, from living with the death of a parent to learning how to parent the second time around.

In my early years in Maine, the Internet allowed me to stay connected with friends and my Blackness. The connections made online in the early 2000s would literally become my life preserver at times; those connections have sustained me through some of the darkest moments of my life. Many of the people I met online in the early days have become lifelong friends and associates.

Given my overall familiarity and comfort with being online, my decision to start blogging in 2008 wasn’t completely out of line.  The decision to blog coinciding with my son’s teen years and the rise of social media with the advent of Facebook being made available to the general public and later the rise of Twitter propelled me into the modern-day world of social media.

Initially, Twitter made no sense to me, after all. Why would I talk to myself? However, after a few readers of my local work discovered me online, Twitter changed the trajectory of my life in many ways. My initial connections were primarily with Maine-based people but it later grew. And, as I realized a few days ago, I have been on Twitter eight years now. I have been on Facebook nine years. I also have a few other social media accounts as well but unlike the old days, my feelings about social media have shifted.

It was bound to happen. After all, we have a president who freely tweets on matters that frankly he knows nothing about and often raves about other things he ought not to be wasting valuable presidential time on. Once upon a time, the idea that the leader of the free world might tweet us into World War Three would seem preposterous but that’s no longer a far-fetched concept. The Internet has always had dark corners but lately it seems like the dark corners have become neighborhoods and entire states.

There is no mistaking the power of the Internet and the potential it holds for good; after all, the world has shrunk to a common space. No longer are we beholden to our local media or the cable channels to tell us what’s going on. When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the odds are high that someone near to the situation can share with us right away with a few tweets. With smartphones and cameras being a societal norm, many people who thought overt racism was dead have realized that racism is still very much a problem as we have seen with the many  of the well-publicized cases in recent years.

However, even these tools can be used for evil as seen a few days ago in the tragic death of Robert Godwin Sr., an elderly man in Cleveland, Ohio, walking home from Easter dinner  who was senselessly killed by Stephen Steve, who recorded the killing and uploaded the video to Facebook. In recent months, other violent and horrific acts have been recorded live on Facebook. In almost all of these cases, the videos are viewed and shared countless times before they are finally taken down. We have become psychological rubberneckers feasting on the sorrows of others as a way to mindlessly kill time.

The dark side of the Internet has become personal to me as I have watched an article written online and circulating in racial justice spaces nationally create a great deal of angst for my organization, colleagues, and friends. It most certainly has added to my workload as I have been asked my views on the piece. This isn’t the time or place for my thoughts but as I joked recently, in all my years of running non-profits, I never thought that I would see an article become a point of crisis.

In recent weeks, I have watched people I know ripped apart online by what at times feels like packs of wolves circling the wagon. Just a few nights ago, I found myself being confronted online by someone demanding to know why I would allow space for the Average White Guy to share his thoughts and was referred to as trash for doing so.

The same type of polarization that has crippled this country has infected the Internet too. No longer can we agree to disagree; instead, if we hold opposing views or don’t agree with others, we risk being labeled and disposed of. Increasingly anyone and anything that does not work for us is simply disposed of because with the click of a button, we sic our pack on the offender or we can end our connections sometimes even our familial ties. The ease at which we dispose of people is staggering to me.

Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am very aware that life and people are far more complex than what we are privy to online. The older I get, the more I realize that there are few absolute truths and that it is possible to hold two opposing truths simultaneously at the same time. Rarely is life truly black and white. Instead much of it is shades of gray. Yet in a world where emails are too much trouble, phone calls are tedious and even a text can feel tiresome to many people, when we rely on these electronic mediums to shape our world and connect, we are risking losing a piece of our own humanity in the process.

I suppose there is a certain rich irony in the fact that a writer whose work grew in prominence due to the Internet is admitting that they have grown to fear the Internet. After all, one misstep can end a career or a relationship and occasionally even a life. I know there is a lot of good work still happening in these digital spaces, especially in activism spaces but for this old-head, increasingly I wonder if I am getting closer to the end of the line. I am just a simple woman, writing simple truths and sharing my musings with the world while grappling with the realities and complexities of life.
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On mindfulness and change, or BGIM musing

In 2008, I stepped into my first yoga class, a yoga nidra class to be exact. I wish that I could say that I was seeking spiritual enlightenment, but the truth is that after fifteen-plus years of suffering from panic attacks that had a habit of sneaking up on me at the most inopportune time (giving a lecture to a class  while working as an adjunct instructor and having to be taken out by paramedics, to name just one of those exact moments).

It had become clear that anxiety and panic were starting to take a toll on my life and that I needed to face the issue head-on. While medication was most certainly an option, I was uncomfortable with the idea of using medication before exhausting all other options, and my research revealed that yoga was possibly one way to manage the panic attacks that had plagued me for years.

I wish that I could say that I went to that first class and left feeling like a brand new person; actually, I left the class thinking: “What kind of woo-woo-ass bullshit did I just participate in?” However, I am stubborn and figured I would give it an honest chance before committing to medication. After weeks of classes, I did experience a shift. I learned to feel my body and that in truly feeling my body, I could feel the signs of tension building that would lead to a full-on attack. I also found that combined with mindfulness around my breath, I could lessen the strength and duration of the panic attacks.

Over time, I would add on full-length ashtanga yoga classes and over the years, the frequency and duration of the attacks dropped sharply. A life without fear of what had been the omnipresent panic attacks became a reality and my love of yoga grew. I started putting the cost of yoga classes into the budget like a regular bill because $100 a month seemed a small price to pay for reclaiming my life. Despite my professional life as a non-profit executive director, I decided to study to become a yoga teacher because my one issue with yoga had always been how overwhelmingly white the discipline is, especially in Maine.

In 2013,I started the process to become a yoga teacher and I also applied for a new job out of state as the executive director of a small anti-racism organization. I was hired in the fall of 2013 with a start date of January 2014. Life felt good. I was a totally immersed yogi, practicing every day, developing strength that I had never known, looking at major life changes and most importantly keeping the anxiety at bay that had almost destroyed my life.

I started my position at Community Change Inc. in January 2014 and despite the plan to move to Boston, life happened. My marriage was in a state of emergency and I knew that if we were to break up, there was no way I could support myself in Boston on my lone income. So I made the painful decision, much to the consternation of my board of directors, to commute from Maine. Initially I was taking the train to Boston three to four times a week. With a 4 a.m. wake-up for the 5:20 train and a return home at 7:00 on a good night, my daily yoga practice fell by the wayside. During that time, I remembered a lesson that my yoga teacher said often: “What happens on the mat mirrors what happens off the mat and in many ways, your time on the mat is about preparing for life often the mat.” At times those words rang hollow yet they sat with me and over time, they would become my lifeline.

In August of 2014, I was eight months into a position that at the time wasn’t going well as financially stabilizing the organization was my key priority. Yet the 125-mile distance between my office and home meant I couldn’t put in the 10- to 12-hour days needed to connect with our organizational base to build my support. My marriage was growing even more strained, it seemed like every other week I was battling a bug as my resistance was down, and frankly I felt like I had made a horrible mistake in taking the job. Then Michael Brown was killed and the Ferguson uprising happened, people were starting to pay attention to the gross racial inequities that were still very real and I found myself thrust into a position of needing to truly guide my organization that has the distinct honor of being the oldest, continuously running anti-racism organization in the country. As the head of the organization, people wanted community and they wanted answers. I was 41 at the time, which is still pretty young by the standards of non-profit directors, and…well…it was a time period where I learned a lot about myself and my limits and pushing through them. I also learned that I desperately needed yoga to stay above the fray but the limitations of 24 hours in a day meant that the almost daily time I needed on the mat to keep my anxiety at bay simply was not possible. Instead, I went to class as I could and went further into breathwork and meditation even on a moving train to keep my equilibrium.

I juggled all the balls until Dec of 2014 when, at a much needed massage, my massage therapist discovered an unusual lump on my back. A few weeks later after developing strange sensations on the right side of  my back and shoulder, I went to my general practitioner who assured me that the lump was a benign lipoma and that while surgery was an option, doing nothing was also an option. Given the realities of my personal life and work at that time, I opted to do nothing which in hindsight was a horrible decision, as I would spend the next year living with discomfort. Discomfort that started to affect my yoga practice. When I did make time to get on the mat, I couldn’t do a full primary series practice without feeling like I was about to die. In early 2015, the decision was made to separate after 18 years of marriage and 20 years of being a couple. It was also the year that I had to shit or get off the pot with regard to my day job and either get the organization stabilized or watch a 40-something-year-old organization die on my watch, which would be tantamount to career suicide.

My life was messy and complex, as was my yoga practice; then to add fuel to the fire, given the nature of my work, increasingly I was being called on to show up both locally and regionally to talk about race. However, as messy as it all was, I learned a lot about life that can only come from lived experience. I learned that the time on the mat does indeed imitate life off the mat. I learned that in my work, the key to change was compassion and creating space for people to not be perfect.

Anti-racism work is ultimately about people; yes, we are fighting a system called white supremacy, a hideous system, yet systems involve people and that’s where the compassion comes in and the space to fuck it up. We can know the lingo, we can understand how oppression works in our heads and how utterly wrong it is but change happens when our hearts and heads connect and form a union.

2015 would eventually end but not before I saw myself leave our family home and start over in a apartment that pretty much could fit inside 2.5 rooms of the house that had long been my home. By the end of 2015, I could barely do a single sun salutation without wincing and my organization ended both our fiscal and calendar year with a deficit which, when you are still a relatively new executive director, isn’t ideal. Yet I persisted.

In early 2016, I would finally have surgery to remove the fast growing lipoma which was taking over my life, and the recovery period provided a much-needed break to clear my head. I would return back to the office with more compassion for myself and my limitations and others. Learning compassion was a hard lesson coming but one I needed and one that continues to resonate deeply with me and which now spills over in my work.  I also learned compassion on the mat, for when I was finally cleared to return to yoga, the strength I had built up over the years had atrophied and poses I once could master in my sleep were hard to hold. Yet I would end 2016 on a high professional note as I saw our new programming structure come together, a successful partnership with The Privilege Institute form and the first ever White Privilege Symposium in our region, and lastly an erasure of the financial deficit. Organizational stability was no longer a dream but a real reality. 

2016 became the year that America lost her compass and the compassion that I had developed in myself allowed me to extend grace to people whose views I did not share and yet develop a common bridge to connect. I would later see seeds of change developing in people who once doubted the existence of white supremacy.  I would over time see my very own home yoga community start openly discussing white supremacy and how it harms. Yet it was the result of years of putting in the time with people.

Right now, I am standing at a crossroads as I see the anger that is driving so much of the dialogue on both sides and knowing so many other change makers who are exhausted at what at times feels like deliberate obtuseness on the side of others. Yet it took America hundreds of years to get here and while it may not take hundreds of years to right the ship, it is going to take real time to dismantle the systems of oppression that unfairly burden all without white skin; thus, we must work harder than ever especially in the era of Trump.

Education, activism and organizing are all key to creating systemic change but increasingly I believe that we need to create space for beloved community and mindfulness in our toolboxes of social change. Beloved community combined with collective and individual mindfulness need to undergird our education, activism and organizing efforts. We can’t let others off the hook but when we touch and feed our own bodies and souls with these tools, it strengthens us to create space that allows for the mistakes that will happen along the way. As for me, I am slowly rebuilding my yoga practice and I am up to a few minutes a day on the mat most days and allowing the space that I create on the mat to guide me off the mat during these unprecedented times.
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BGIM Media Expansion Update

Greetings friends! It’s January 2017, and I just wanted to give everyone an update on the status of the Black Girl in Maine expansion efforts. In a nutshell: Slower and far costlier than expected.

As you may have noticed over the past several months, I have taken on a few contributors: Teddy Burrage, Marena Blanchard and Average White Guy. Your support of this space has made it possible to do this and offer compensation to our contributors which, while nominal, will be increasing as I look to add on a few more new contributors. Over 70-plus blog posts were written in 2016 and the BGIM Facebook space has grown by leaps and bounds as we continue to post articles of interest and share important thoughts on a daily basis.

While it has been wonderful to see so many people wanting to understand racism, it also has a downside. There were two major hacking incidents on the blog between October 2016 and December 2016, resulting in an extensive upgrade on the back end to keep the site safe. These efforts will continue into 2017 as I install a firewall. As I have learned, sites that focus on race, religion and politics are popular with hackers. The safety measures that I now have to undertake are not free; thankfully, patrons allow me to run the site which as it grows does incur regular expenses: Contributor fees, hosting, security, and a minimal level of compensation for my own time.

Moving ahead, part of the BGIM Media expansion involved adding podcasts. which right now is projected to be up and running by late February. Creating a quality podcast requires an investment of equipment and time, of course, and a longtime reader of this space who is a sound engineer has offered to help me get up to speed on learning the technical aspects. For this I am immensely grateful, as the process has been a bit overwhelming at times.

With the expansion into podcasting, I have been looking at a site redesign that will allow for ease of use, as well as integrating the podcast and blog posts onto the same site. But that process has been slower than expected as the site has graduated to the point that my own skills are no longer enough for redesigning it. I am in the process of getting final estimates from local Maine-based firms including one woman-of-color-run design firm as well as another women-owned firm. Supporting local business, especially any POC-owned businesses, is important to me as there is a link that I have written about in the past between race, gender and economics.

Unlike many media operations, BGIM is a sole proprietorship and I do this work while juggling my day job as executive director of the oldest, continuously running anti-racism organization in the country. A position that, while lovely, sounds far more impressive than the reality of being the only full-time employee at a scrappy little non-profit in challenging times. I also wear other hats that include mom and now grandmother.

This site is truly a labor of love and my way to make a direct difference in the world, but it does require patrons and donations to sustain it. So for those who have supported the site with a financial gift, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your support has been and continues to invaluable to me and very much appreciated. If you have never contributed and you have the means, please consider becoming a monthly donor or make a one-time gift. Your support does matter.

Lastly the first several podcasts will be for patrons only. I suspect they will be a bit raw, but it is my way to show my appreciation for your belief in this work.

Warmly,

Shay aka Black Girl in Maine 


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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