Adding grace and community to activism, accountability and equity

I don’t consider myself to be an activist or an organizer but, having trained another lifetime ago with the Midwest Training Academy via the Americorps Vista program in the mid 1990s and having spent the past 23 years working in communities for social change, I realize that there are some who do see me as an activist or an organizer—or both.

In recent years, I have lived, breathed and slept anti-racism work. I came to this work as a frustrated Black woman who had relocated to Maine for family reasons. The racism that I saw early on in this state was downright shocking. Whether it was having my son brought home in the back of a cop car because he dared to go buy a sandwich and was deemed suspicious or me being called colored on a good day to nigger on a bad day. To be clear, racism in Chicago was real and quite present as a constant fog around me, but in a predominantly (and overwhelmingly…more than 90% of the population) white state like Maine, it was more blatant to me and thus more soul-crushing

After five years of running a community-based center for families in Biddeford, Maine, I stepped down from that position in 2013 to become the first Black woman to head Community Change Inc. (CCI), a Boston-based anti-racism organization with a holistic approach to tackling systemic racism. I took the job because I wanted to do more than write about racism; I wanted to actually be a part of the larger movement for change.

When I started at CCI in 2014, I had already built a small but loyal following on social media, as I had started blogging in 2008. And while the initial focus of my blog was parenting and living in Maine while Black, my writing shifted to writing more in-depth essay style pieces on racism and systemic oppression, using personal stories as a vehicle to make people think critically about race. The other purpose of my writing was (and continues to be) to connect with other Black people and other POC who live in overwhelmingly white spaces. Having spent almost the first 30 years of my life in Chicago, my own analysis on blackness shifted as I met Black and brown people who lived in Maine and other parts of Northern New England. It allowed me to process the richness of the Black experience outside of living in areas where people expect to find us.

As I settled into my role at CCI, I had no idea that anti-racism/racial justice work would go mainstream and move beyond academic and activist spaces. Thanks to technology and  the ability to capture extrajudicial violence against Black and brown bodies would shift the narratives and lead to long overdue conversations.

The election of our first Black president was a smokescreen that allowed many white Americans to deem racism a thing of the past. Yet it was under our first Black president that police violence towards Black people escalated. Barack Obama was tentative at best when it came to racial matters, having to walk the type of fine line that the system of white supremacy and capitalism demands of its chosen tokens. I say this with great fondness for Obama the man while recognizing that in many ways, Obama the president was the worse thing to happen to Black America.

The atmosphere and technology that allowed trauma porn against Black bodies to be viewed from the comforts of our homes also gave rise to a new type of activism. One that led directly to the creation of groups and movements such as Black Lives Matter.

There is no doubt that these newer, more inclusive and often young people led movements that were in large part what we needed to shift the narrative. They are still part of what we need and yet, as an older head, I worry about the personal impact on those in the trenches. I worry that in this race to save ourselves, the very human parts of working for change are being lost and that in our quest to create an equitable world, we are losing parts of ourselves and others.

The same technology that is moving the needle threatens to destroy our very humanity as we can now package and sell parts of ourselves and take the difficult and clumsy work of dismantling white supremacy and offer it in a package complete with a to-do list.

Anti-racism work is hard. It’s taxing for Black folks and other POC because this work is about us getting free and it’s hard for white people because few white folks want to willingly give up their privilege. While you can learn about the system of oppression and want to end it, most people will stumble; to be frank, people will fuck it up. It’s messy, it’s emotional and what keeps people in the work is their community.

We talk a great deal about accountability, which is absolutely essential to anti-racism work but we leave out the piece that accountability requires being in community with people. With accountability comes grace, the type of grace that we rarely will offer up to people with whom we don’t have an emotional attachment.

Without community and grace, people in movement spaces often become disposable at that inevitable point when they make mistakes or we realize that we are susceptible to the type of personalities looking to gain access to power and privilege.

In the past several years I have watched a number of people and programs come and go in anti-racism spaces. I have watched as people have become stars only to be deemed trash a few years later. And it’s true that some of those people whose stars dimmed were problematic and perhaps toxic but others were simply humans who stumbled for a moment in time.

There are always a few folks who are not operating in good faith; these people are everywhere. Bad actors are an unfortunate part of the human experience. From where I sit, I am not sure if we will ever weed these people out but what I do know is that the current anti-racism climate is ripe for hucksters and those who are looking for a payday and not liberation.

I worry that as social media allows us to talk openly about our work that we are creating anti-racism superstars and that type of celebrity, while it can help inform, can also hinder if one is not self-aware and does not have a community to which they are accountable.

As I think about my personal and organizational goals for 2019, I feel a sense of urgency to be grounded and connected to my own communities both in Maine where I live and in Boston where I work.

There are many schools of thoughts about racial justice and anti-racism work. For some, it is never about the heart and mind connection to shift things but instead the focus is strictly on dismantling the system of white supremacy. Yet I believe that both parts are critical to making the shifts we need. When I look at our current systems and racial disparities, I see the people working in those systems. I see a nation that shifted laws to create parity and yet very little has changed. My own personal view is that eradicating the disease of white supremacy will require a heart, mind and systemic approach. Which will also require a reallocation of material resources to create parity.

This isn’t going to be easy—especially in the era of white nationalism and Trump—which is why those in the trenches and those supporting those in the trenches need to be grounded in not just sound organizing principles but within a community which will hold them in grace and hold them accountable when necessary.


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When white male supremacy ruins toughness itself

Toughness. It’s about standing back up more times than you’ve been knocked down. It’s about facing down the odds stacked against you. It’s about withstanding pain and suffering for a greater good. It’s a theme at the core of these United States. In our myths toughness is John Wayne and Rocky and Ford trucks. We love it in our myths, but in reality, toughness is Fred Hampton, Fanny Lou Hamer and the Poor People’s Campaign. America hates toughness in reality.

We used to all agree on the basic idea that toughness itself was a particular mix of strength and resilience. Even if you hated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.at the time, his continuous risings up from brutal public beatings displayed a toughness that you couldn’t deny. Say whatever you want, do whatever you want; he would never be made to cower. If you hated him, you hated him for the obvious reasons, but you were outraged by his toughness.

Having a common understanding of toughness is important because it means we also have a common understanding of pain and suffering. This is especially important now as white liberals are beginning to understand how consistently conservatives refuse to go along with reality. Like, at least twice a day I see a post about how aggravating it is that “they don’t even believe in science!” As if that kind of thinking is new.

But a common understanding of pain and suffering has always been there. The same pain and suffering was intended with the words said against both MLK and Colin Kaepernick for their protests, though they were decades apart. Chants of “white power!” soon followed chants of “Black power!” just the same as chants of “all lives matter!” soon followed chants of “Black lives matter!” all for the sake of continuing the pain and suffering. But like I said, we used to all agree.

It’s perfectly reasonable to put a quick-draw, steel-jaw, damsel-saving cowboy with a slow-win, steel-chin, redemption-seeking boxer under the umbrella of toughness. But what if I told you that under that umbrella I was also going to put a silver-spooned, lying whiner? All things being equal, you’d probably tell me that I didn’t quite understand the purpose of umbrellas.

But all things aren’t equal. From the first moment he toyed with running for president in 2011 until right now, republicans’ favorite thing about the Commandorange in Chief has always been his toughness. Or should I say, “toughness” as in “hair?”

Now, look. Before I get too far here, no, this isn’t about what a liar the president is. If you haven’t figured out who he is by now, then you need to find Jesus. Also, this isn’t about what hypocrites the republicans are. If evangelical support of the president hasn’t shown you that by now, you ought to take them with you on your search.

And no, it’s not about how divided our nation has become—not how we currently frame that idea, anyway. When it comes down to it, there’s really only one truly divided group: white men. Black people aren’t divided over whether or not#BlackLivesMatter. Women aren’t divided over #MeToo. People without equal rights aren’t divided over whether or not they want equal rights. It’s only the people they want to be equal to who aren’t quite so sure. And right now, those people don’t even agree on the definition of toughness. This means they also don’t agree on the meanings of pain or suffering, either.

They probably never did, but like the rest of these divisions, it’s only become clear recently. Some white men define toughness the same across all social lines, but some define it as cruelty toward others. We’ve been seeing this for a while here in Maine under our soon-to-be ex-governor Paul LePage.

LePage’s exploitations are widely known. His actions have also hurt women and children while simultaneously helping along the opioid epidemic, and that’s just with one set of vetoes on a Wednesday in April. The arguments LePage gives to support his decisions probably sound very tough to his supporters, but man oh man are they just objectively the straight up whinings of a shitty kid. If you’ve ever heard his voice, then you know the tone I’m talking about. If you haven’t, please don’t.

But some do believe him to be tough. They feel the same about the “president” and in that belief, these fools have thrown away the very last bit of their national identities. Because inside toughness is stoicism and sacrifice and nobility and modesty—but now, no more. How can you respect the sacrifice and nobility, the toughness of a Purple Heart recipient if whining and bone spurs are also included in the definition?

The truth is that even toughness, the very core of American Exceptionalism itself, was just another and perhaps the last remaining veil of white supremacy in the American Myth. John Wayne, Rocky and Ford did their best, but it’s all out in the open now and everyone can see their (white) national(ist) identities for what they are.


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The George Bush lovefest threatens to obscure reality and history

Look, I realize that the passing of a former president—any former president—is big deal. It goes beyond just family and friends. It’s about an entire nation’s feelings, good and bad. And even though the family of recently deceased George H.W. Bush is tied to Texas more than anything, the family has a compound not far from where I live in Maine, and they routinely summered there. So even as Trump closed down federal offices for a day (including your postal service right at the start of the Christmas season), in a an attempt to look like he actually cares about anyone or anything other than the furry little alien occupying space on his scalp, there was a lot of chatter in my own state. Many tears and accolades and kind words.

Bush himself and the rest of his family are generally well-regarded here. I see all kinds of praise being heaped on him and have been listening to plenty of it on NPR as well. For the most part, articles like this one in the Portland Press-Herald give passing mentions to anything he did that was bad and generally shine a light on how good and decent a man he was.

You know, despite the fact he played off racism to boost his tough on crime image during his presidential campaign, relentlessly using a Black man, William Horton, as his symbol and rallying cry to drum up support. As vice president, he unfailingly backed up and bolstered policies of Ronald Reagan that helped put our nation on a horrific economic path (the ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, among other things) and that ushered in the religion-obsessed right-wing GOP that we have today. As president, he kept a lot of those policies and momentum going. He turned a largely indifferent eye to AIDS, leading to increased death and misery for its victims, and he played a huge role in a lot of the political destabilization of many nations—including those in Central America from where immigrants seeking asylum are serving as cannon fodder literally and figuratively for the rabid conservative masses, particularly Trump.

Now, if it sounds like I hate the man, you’d be wrong.

I dislike most of what he did and much of what he stood for, sure, but that describes my attitude toward a lot of white people, particularly white men, in this nation built on stolen land and the blood of enslaved Black people.

What I dislike is this notion that we cannot speak ill of the dead, especially esteemed dead like Bush himself. That doesn’t mean I think we can only heap degrading words on dead people who did horrible things when horrible doesn’t describe the whole of who they were or what they did. But I am all for truth-telling. Balance. Honesty.

Tell lies about me when you eulogize me, and I might come back to haunt you.

The thing is, we can say in the same set of breaths that George Herbert Walker Bush was a personable and decent guy who was pragmatic in his politics, willing to try to find common ground and generous to family, friends and others—even as we acknowledge that whatever his personal personality strengths, he did horrible things that shaped our nation for the worse and did all kinds of harm.

Sure, it’s not just Bush, or Reagan, or Bush’s son George or Trump. It’s not even just the GOP. Bill Clinton did terrible things, too, not the least of which was the way he helped destroy the social safety net with welfare “reform.” And while Barack Obama may be one of the most truly decent humans we’ve had in the White House since Jimmy Carter—and he carried off two terms with no political or family scandals—he is guilty of a lot of sins toward immigrants (helping to usher in heavy deportation activity, for one thing) and civilians in war-torn nations (with all his love of using drone attacks abroad). I want the truth told about all of them.

I can honor Obama for having done a lot in office that was good and having failed a lot as well. For example: raising his voice about racial issues even as he did a lot to undermine Black Americans in his policies and things like his nearly unwavering support of police even when they needed to be taken to task for killing unarmed Black people left and right. I expect people to do the same for Bush.

And so too can we say that Bush loved many people, including a lesbian couple in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush compound is—attending their wedding and serving as a witness—even as we acknowledge that he did nothing good for gay and lesbian people policy-wise—in fact, he probably worsened their lives as a group. And when it comes to racial issues, Bush almost certainly wasn’t a raving, unabashed racist, but I have little doubt there was plenty of racism in his actions, even if he didn’t think about it much and even if his “heart wasn’t in it.” And I’m not going to stand for sweeping that under the rug—he is partly to blame for how little progress we’ve made on racism in this nation. Life is about impacts that we create more than the intentions that we have.

My fears with this lovefest toward Bush and how decent he was are many. For one thing, even liberals are jumping on the train, undermining their own missions by raising up a man who opposed much of what they work toward—probably even unto his death bed. Also, all this love with very little attention paid to the negative aspects of his life threatens to cement what has already been a glossing-over of his record. History will, if we are not careful, paint Bush as some kind of saint that he was far from being. Finally, we need to admit that much of our affection for Bush and his legacy and history has to do with how absurdly awful Trump is. Remember, we’ve been on a track for years now of softening our views on his son, George W. Bush, because he’s old now too and painting and seeming so nice and quiet—even liberals talk about how we kind of miss the younger Bush’s presidency. And that was a man who tanked our entire economy and led us into awful wars that we are still fighting or trying to recover from. The late George H.W. Bush may be very little like Trump overall, but he did help pave the way for our Orange Autocrat.

No, we need to stop the unwavering love and the call to “never speak ill of the dead.” We can be balanced. We can be kind to the Bush family in their time of mourning. We can acknowledge what was good about the man. But we absolutely need truth right now in an era where lies are openly spoken from the White House and no one bats an eye about it anymore. We need to tell the whole story of influential and powerful people, not totally sanitized ones (at worst) or ones that heap on the good things and give passing attention to the bad ones (which is often the best we ‘re seeing in most mainstream media coverage).

A false history won’t help us. It may make a lot of us feel good, but it won’t fix anything. It just breaks the nation a little more to erase the sins of the past just because someone got to the end of their life just like all of us do.


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