Jake

#BeNice: The Power of Youth Voices

I get to work with some pretty amazing young people on a regular basis.  It’s honestly inspiring to realize how many young people are out there in the world, working daily to improve their communities and our society.

Thus, when I got to work with a school in Washington recently, I was expecting to find some pretty phenomenal young people, but I wasn’t prepared for the force for good named Jake.

During our UPstander Intervention Training, I talked to the students at Jake’s school about the idea of being social normers, of being the change you wish to see in your school so that you can inspire others to do the same.  We talked about how social norming helps to change the air students breath in school to make it more inclusive, which makes the other work of being an UPstander far easier.

While talking to these students, though, I didn’t realize that one of the students to whom I was speaking could easily have been up there offering his wisdom.  After all, not long before I came to his school, Jake had made this video:

One of the most common forms of ageism toward young people in our society today is thinking that as adults, young people have nothing to teach us.  Often adults pretend that we have the whole world figured out and that young folks will one day know as much as we do if they make it to the magical world we call adulthood.

In reality, though, young people are often the ones with the most to teach.  After all, they have not been fully clouded by the cynicism or negativity that sometimes comes with age.  Even more, young people are engaging with the world in ways that those of us even ten years older than them could not have imagined at their age.  Youth are inspiring revolutions in the Arab Spring and transforming their communities through activism and servant leadership in every community around the world.  Plus, with the power of the internet that they know so well, they have the ability to learn from other young people as well as from elders in ways I never would have imagined at sixteen.

What Jake reminded me, not only when I met him or when I first saw this video but in our continuing relationship through social media, is that I have a lot to learn.

And Jake reminded me that sometimes the best teachers are those who are many years younger than me.

Columbine Video Blog

Columbine High School – A Community Defined by Unity

I’m pretty lucky.

I get to spend a large amount of my time hanging out in schools where people care really deeply about building inclusive environments where everyone feels safe.  Just this week I got to spend a day learning from some committed educators at the high school I graduated from, educators who are going above and beyond to serve traditionally marginalized students.

Most of the time when I’m working with a school, though, there is a laundry list of problems laid out by students, staff, parents, and administrators: cyberbullying, teachers feeling bullied by administration, students feeling bullied by teachers, students treating other students like crap, students feeling like no one cares for them in the building, etc.

Even if it’s a minority of voices, I can always find people to talk about the trials, the challenges, and the difficult stuff that the community is facing.

Thus, when I was asked to work with Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, I was pretty sure what I would encounter.  What I wasn’t sure about was how Columbine’s history would impact how inclusive it is today.  I had all sorts of preconceived notions about the community based in the media frenzy surrounding the community since the shootings there in 1999, but what would the community actually be like?

No matter what my expectations may have been, what I found was not at all what I expected…

Columbine is proof that when people dedicate themselves to inclusion and building safe educational environments, individuals can have a powerful impact.

In the case of Columbine, this spirit of inclusion grew out of tragedy, but it doesn’t have to be that way for your community.  Need tools for building an inclusive school culture and climate?  Look no further than CivilSchools.

Reflections on the White Privilege Conference

Black and White: Racism in the Criminal “Justice” System

Few issues expose the  comprehensive racist oppression present at the systemic level in the United States better than understanding the criminal (in)justice system.  From street stops to arrests to charging and plea bargaining or jury selection to sentencing to treatment within the penal system to disenfranchisement post-release, racism infects every single level of the criminal (in)justice system.

No resource more comprehensively addresses this vast social problem than Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and as such, it ought to be required reading for every person in the United States.  But for those who shy away from the strong language of the “new Jim Crow” to describe mass incarceration in the United States, consider the following:

 

In considering this graphic, we should recognize that this is not just a Black vs White issue and that racist mass incarceration does disproportionately impact all people of Color, most particularly those people of Color without access to wealth.  While the graphic is useful, it should be understood to be limited.

Beyond that, though, perhaps the measures in the “There’s Hope Still” section at the end of the infographic bring hope to some, none of those indicate a widespread transformation of the systems of racist oppression that make the rest of these stats possible.

What does give me hope, though, are the people-powerful, organized activists both inside and outside of prisons who are fighting for justice and change.  Whether we’re talking about the organizers of the California Prisoner Hunger Strike or the people at the Sentencing Project or local activists (like Save the Kids here in Minneapolis) who are working daily to transform the (in)justice system that disproportionately impacts people of Color, knowing that there’s power in the people gives me hope that water will eventually drip through stone.

But if their work is ever going to do more than change the fates of individuals wrapped up in the racist system, there needs to be a critical mass of people calling for systemic transformation.

So start by knowing your facts. Then figure out how you will take action.

***

Infographic courtesy of Ashleigh Bell and ArrestRecords.  Ashleigh Bell is an author, working with strong passion for the site ArrestRecords.com. Her interests relate primarily to crime & criminal justice issues.  Feel free to drop her a line at ashleighbell928(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

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True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt

As I prepare to head to the White Privilege Conference in Madison, WI this weekend, here’s my latest piece published at Everyday Feminism.  As I have been helping plan some of the parts of the conference meant to inspire people to take action during and after the three-day event, this post seems particularly relevant, as those of us with privilege must find ways to move past guilt and toward accountable action.

***

I remember well when I was first confronted with my privilege.

I had just started college, and some activists called me out on the ways in which my class and race privilege were showing up in the classroom as well as in activist spaces.

Of course I was indignant. “I’m not privileged! I work hard for everything I have!”

And while I did indeed work hard, that assertion is obviously laughable.

There are all sorts of aspects of my identity that afford me privilege: my race, my gender, my religious upbringing, my intergenerational wealth, my ability, and on and on.

But that didn’t make it any easier for me to hear, and as I realized they were right, I fell into a bit of depression, carrying tremendous guilt and struggling to understand how this could be true.

I felt as if I was a bad person simply for being who I am, and I was trapped in shame.

I’m a racist, classist, sexist, ableist homophobe who is ruining everything everywhere.” Yeah, it’s a little dramatic, but it’s honestly reflective of how I felt.

In the midst of my wrestling with this guilt and inertia, I noticed a quote on the dorm room wall of a girl I was totes crushing on:

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I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw it. Or the second time. But since I was hanging around in her room a lot, the quote kept showing up for me, and after a while, it really hit me.

I had to find a way to move out of guilt if I wanted to make a difference.

In time I came to realize that if privilege guilt prevents me from acting against oppression, then it is simply another tool of oppression, and sitting in guilt means further colluding with the system that is making me feel shame.

In turn, we have to find a way to move through or past guilt and toward action against oppression.

And though the process of overcoming privilege guilt must inevitably be intensely personal, there are approaches to ending feelings of guilt that all people of privilege can take.

Approaches to Moving Through or Past Privilege Guilt

1. Self-Reflect

If you’re struggling with shame about your identity and your privilege, that guilt is rooted somewhere, and understanding those roots is important.

Is your guilt coming from your active collusion in oppression? Is it rooted in past action? Is it rooted in feelings of powerlessness about the big-picture problems of oppression?

Without a strong understanding of where our guilt comes from, it is impossible to overcome guilt and accountably act for social justice.

After all, if our guilt is rooted in past oppressive actions, knowing so allows us to forgive ourselves and, perhaps, apologize to others for our hurtful behavior so that we can move forward.

If our guilt stems from our own collusion with oppression, lacking such awareness will only lead to “White knighting,” a term I use as a catchall for acting for or on behalf of those we wish to help. Having knowledge of our own collusion, then, allows us to begin to take steps toward solidarity.

2. Understand and Accept Your Role in Oppression

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Note the use of the Gaelic Cross to encourage White Pride

Holding the Tension: Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity

I recently attended a fundraiser event for Oyate Nipi Kte, an organization dedicated to the recovery of “Dakota traditional knowledge, including Dakota language, spirituality, ecology, oral tradition and life ways.”  At the event, Waziyatawin, Ph.D, called on White settlers who live on occupied Indigenous land to consider what it means to participate in resistance to White supremacy and continued colonization.

During a small group conversation, my friend Lex said something that has stuck with me, running through my mind daily since: “As White people, it’s important that we do the work to figure out who our people were before we were colonizers.”

It’s notable that Lex said this the day before St. Patrick’s day, during a weekend when countless people of all ethnic backgrounds donned green and drank green beer until they puked a verdant mess.

For me, reclaiming who my people were before we were colonizers means understanding my Irish, German, and Dutch heritage, yet I know next to nothing about my people and the cultures from whence they came.  Why?  Well, because they became White.

Whiteness as a Construct

Despite the way it’s often discussed, race is not a biological concept, and it sure as hell isn’t static.  First, “Whiteness” didn’t exist when Europeans first came to North and South America.  There were simply European landholders who held tight to power.  Over time, though, these European landowners needed a way to stave off slave and proletariat rebellions, so they invented this common “race” for some Europeans.

As laid out in Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People,” at first, only certain Europeans (read wealthy men from north-western Europe) were considered worthy of being in the club.  In the early-to-mid 19th century, though, the wealthy “White” folks realized they needed more allies who could serve in slave patrols and in menial labor positions, so groups like the Irish were slowly allowed to become “White” in order to offer these European immigrants/colonizers a pittance that would keep them from uniting with enslaved African people and Indigenous people.

From there, Whiteness was expanded again in the early-to-mid-20th century to include most Europeans and even to include Jews who, no matter where in Europe they were from, had been traditionally excluded from the “White” label.

The Wages of Whiteness

What this label offered was access: access to land (through things like the Land Grant Acts which was almost totally denied to anyone not considered White), access to education (both through better-funded public schools and the G.I. Bill, which was systematically denied to soldiers of Color), access to jobs (though anti-Irish and anti-Italian job discrimination did exist, it didn’t have the widespread impact that policies like Jim Crow did), and access to countless other little and big legs up in American life.

IrishNeedNotApply

Despite common refrains from modern White people of Irish descent, these signs were rare.

But Whiteness came with a cost.  Becoming White meant leaving behind the cultural heritage of our people so that we could access the economic benefits, sometimes ones desperately needed, of the “American Dream” (aka the “Dream of White Supremacy”).

There’s a reason that I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, Dutch, or German.  There’s a reason that I know next to nothing about the cultures from which my people came.  There’s a reason that I don’t know the true reasons for why my people fled the land they always knew to see opportunities as colonizers in North America.

That reason is Whiteness.

When we look at race through this context, it is easier to understand Whiteness as more than a racial identity: it’s a system of privilege and oppression better known and understood as White Supremacy.

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