9 months later, and 10 years on

May 2015. Today is Mike Brown’s 19th birthday. This I learned from the political education and relationships that I have benefitted from through the It Starts Today campaign that ends today on Mike Brown’s birthday. April 2005. Ten years ago, I was invited by John, Courtney, and Jamie to apply to join the Advisory Board at Resource Generation. I did so. I entered my first board meeting at the Walker Center in suburban Boston in a cohort of rookie board members along with Andrew, Ajita, Penny, and Meg. We were some kind of board Fab 5 heading into headwinds of organizational turbulence, interpersonal challenges, and divine breakthroughs that I could hardly fathom when I first walked through that doorway as board member. It was revolutionary to attend meetings where the culture was to introduce yourself by saying four things: Your name. The place you live. Your class identity. Your “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun). I’ve been more schooled in and on gender and sexuality from the colleagues, friends, comrades, and confidantes of RG than any Women & Gender Studies classes could have instilled. At the first RG conference that I attended (circa 2006), multiple RGers did not only talk about their inherited wealth but told stories of how they could trace their white families’ wealth all the way back to slavery. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It rocked my world. And, I was hooked. RG gave me the tools, the political education, the camaraderie to be able to say that “my mom grew up in a working-class, white family” for the first time. I had never understood this, nor seen this facet of my family tree before being immersed in spaces that were explicit and unapologetic about class, classism, capitalism, and class dynamics. Not by being outwardly focused and waxing philosophical about class in society, but by being inwardly focused on families and the belief systems and biases that color my choices. I have been off of the board for just about four years and forever give thanks and have multiple, daily appreciations for the gifts that having been a board member at RG has bestowed upon me. Wisdom, love, patience, courage, trust in others (in their anxieties and their daring feats and so much more), impatience, humility, a yearning to tell stories and write blog posts among them. And ask others questions so they will write their blog posts and tell different versions of their stories. Today, I honor the life, the premature death, and the legacy of Mike Brown and all the people of Ferguson, Missouri. As one more name, place, and episode in the long legacy of lynching and the addiction to violence that discolor the US Constitution. I had not known the name of Ferguson before last summer. The people and popular outrage of Ferguson compelled me to figure out how I could act where I was and with those people that I already knew. To inquire who were the small group of people that I could band together with in such a nauseating, perplexing, horrifying time. If you’ve got some change in your pocket, some discretionary dollars in your bank account then go and invest in Black liberation, in Black leadership, and in Black dignity. By investing in Blacks in America, we are investing in all humankind. Thanks, yall. And, praise Jesus that I’ve learned to see that those who believe in freedom are of all races, of all classes, of all nationalities. And, I will continue to seek out those who believe in freedom and civil disobedience.

The practice of meetings

I recall a clip of Allen Iversen, former all star guard of the Philadelphia 76ers saying, “We talkin’ about practice.”

This was at a press conference where Iversen seemed irritated (at least to me) that he was having to spend time answering questions about what he was or wasn’t doing during practice. They weren’t talking about games or opponents but what was rumored to have happened at practice. Namely what had occurred between Iversen and his coach. He had plenty of reasons to be weary of how the press portrayed him, since they had portrayed him as a ruffian from the time he was 18 years old.

I remember Allen Iversen’s irritation years later because it reminds me of feelings that so many people have towards a constant irritation in their own lives. It is not basketball practice that they are obligated to attend, forced to go through, and then go back to over and over again. It is not anything sports-related, but it is the job-related meetings that people are required to attend, to go through, and go back to over and over again, even when they don’t go well.

Like a bad practice, a bad meeting feels terrible. The difference is that most of us, unlike professional sports athletes, don’t get skewered by the corporate media afterwards. There may be gossip about what does or doesn’t happen in a meeting, but rarely is it in front of video cameras and reporters.

In the last month, I have heard instances of two friends who were feeling a lot like Allen Iversen. They were stewing after long, onerous, and horrendous days. Their work days did not consist of hours of practice, but hours of meetings. Meetings that people loath. All-day meetings that feel useless or, even worse, are counter-productive. Meetings that take people away from what they feel a need or obligation to do, and have to sit through something else. To be in a physical space, or on a phone call that obstructs and distracts.

I find this practice/meeting metaphor more poignant having just read about how people steal your most valuable asset, your time. Time which unlike money cannot be compensated, reimbursed or retroactive. When I heard Iversen’s quote, it sounded like he was doubly frustrated. Frustrated at a practice that seemed like a waste, and then having to spend time listening to people ask him questions about an incident that they were not a part of, and that he did not want to revisit.

A question that we ask in our house is: How does this serve you?

How do meetings serve you? More importantly, which meetings don’t serve you? And, what is causing us to continue to subject ourselves to terrible meetings. It has been 13 years since a book with the title, We Have to Stop Meeting Like This written by Tony Jeary and George Low, came out. I haven’t read it, but whatever meeting status quo the authors hoped to address and disrupt seems to carry on.

Rather than get wiser in how we do meetings, we have gotten stuck. It seems to me that all meetings consist of some fundamental elements:

<ul><li>two or more people</li>
<li>one or multiple topics to address</li>
<li>how the people in the meeting communicate with one another</li></ul>

In my math mind, this feels like an equation:

X = P + T + C

Where X is a meeting, and the three variables are People, Topics, and Communication. Depending on the set-up, and the power dynamics, a different meeting could mathematically be written as:

X = (4P x 3T)/C

Where four people are present and they have three topics on the agenda.  Like in any good equation, any of these variables (P, T or C) can greatly affect the outcome of meeting X. But, oftentimes, it seems to me that communication, C, is the variable that most affects both the people in a meeting and how they talk to/address/shout at/disagree/pummel/reprimand/present to/inform the other people/person in a meeting.

As social beings, how we communicate with one another tremendously impacts how well or how poorly we get along. As is the case in any team sports, chemistry has as much to do with performance as talent. As a child, and as a younger brother, who often played sports and pick up games, I learned how a team with more synergy and less talent could often win over a team with more talent and less synergy.

Our working environments and campaigns need meetings with better synergy and more attention given to the chemistry and dynamics between People. The old and entrenched habits around meetings need to be broken. We’ve got to figure out how to drop these bad habits, as they are lethal to our health.

To fear or not fear the homeless

I was running an errand this morning, thinking that I was going to the public library. It turned out to be much more of a visit to see my own thoughts and patterns.

I noticed the line between the subconscious and conscious minds and how I was making choices about which side of the street I walk on, and whether I make eye contact with someone or cast my eyes elsewhere.

I gave the silent head nod to a man squatting at the edge of the parking lot on the backside of the library. There was no visual response, and I continued on with my affairs. After walking out of the library doors, I noticed a pair of people sitting on a doorstep, sitting in the sun. The young man was in a t-shirt soaking up the rays of sunshine despite the brisk morning air.

I noticed my own split-second pause as I debated whether to cross the street onto the sidewalk that would take me within four feet of those two. If I had opted to stay on the far sidewalk, twenty five feet removed, I could have kept my eyes from peering across the tarmac chasm at the two human beings sitting in the New Mexico sun. Whether I recognize someone else’s humanity is that sudden and subtle. I can live in mini-moments that dignify the life and essence or others, or I could have stayed far away on the other side of street pretending that my non-seeing was the result of which sidewalk I was on rather than my choice to see or not see. To fear or not fear. More precisely, to be bound by the fears of my own narratives or not be bound by the fears of my own narratives.

These are a few of the choices that blur my conscious and subconscious.

Justice, dignity and freedom

Two days ago, my partner, Brinda, said how

he changed what it meant to be African. He changed what it meant to be African American

as we sat with the news that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had passed earlier on Thursday, December 5, 2013.

Indeed, Madiba changed what it meant to be human. He dignified the whites who had been systematically privileged by apartheid, he dignified the ruling National Party that was the final white-led political party in final years of apartheid in the early ’90s. And he ushered the transition from a violent, white-minority government to a multiracial democracy. Mandela’s tact and approach was unique in that he did not diminish the Black masses, the poor and the oppressed when dealing with the powers that be. He was unapologetic as the figure head and public face for the political party, the labor unions, the youth movement and the social movements that brought about apartheid’s end.

In the 72 hours since his passing, I have been reminded that violence may be a necessity when every other means or resort has been exhausted. I have been reminded that a leader or elected official does not need to relent in their systemic critique of the status quo once they have been elected. I have been reminded

I lived in Swaziland from 1991 through 1994. It was a pivotal time as neighboring South Africa transitioned from an exclusively white-governed nation to a multiracial democracy. I recall one weekend in 1992 when my mixed race family went to Pretoria for the weekend. Our car broke down, so we had to spend one extra night, on a Sunday, in one of Pretoria’s upper class neighborhoods. The two reasons that we could be there, were that as a diplomat and his family we were bestowed with a level of privilege, which was further eased by the fact that in the early 1990s, Black South Africans had begun to live in neighborhoods that had been historically white.

Because our car broke down, I would miss school on Monday at Waterford Kamhlaba. Yet, it was not just any Monday, but the day of the Referendum asking white South Africans if they wanted to vote to end apartheid by granting Blacks and Coloreds the right to vote. To my 13 year old sensibilities on the night before, a race war seemed all but inevitable. I do not know how many stories of widespread race-based violence had been forecast on television nor how many newspapers had written about the possibilities of political violence. I went to bed on Sunday terrified by what would happen in the streets of Pretoria and throughout the country the following day.

Yet, nothing of the sort occurred. There were a few skirmishes fomented (or even staged) by the white nationalist organization, AWB (who’s name in Afrikaans, I never could remember). Otherwise, peace and calm was so widespread that by dusk, I was clipping the posters of various political parties as my mom drove me around the predominantly white, middle- and upper-class neighborhood that we were staying in. I would run up to a streetlamp and cut the twine in two places before tossing the posters either in the trunk or backseat of the car that we were in. I cannot remember, but we gathered at least a dozen, if not 20, posters. A few were those of the rulling National Party that said either “Yes” or “Ya” (the equivalent term in Afrikaans). We encountered few No posters, that we still chose to cut and compile. The one that is most emblazoned in my psyche, even 21 years later, was a caricature of FW de Klerk, the President and leader of the National Party, on his knees bowing before a standing Nelson Mandela. Off in one of the corners is the shape of a red, stop sign were the three letters — Nee — asking that voters refuse to grant the majority of adults in the country the right to vote.

***

It was a magical phase in my life. As a mixed-raced, teenager from the United States attending a middle and high school, Waterford, with a legacy of being a place for Black, white, Colored, and Indian South Africans to send their children to a mixed race school environment. It was a school where I shared classrooms, meals and sports fields with the children (and grandchildren) of the freedom struggles of Mozambique, Zambia and other countries. It was a school where Walter Sisulu came and spoke to the students. I learned a few political anthems and songs, such as N’khosi Sikhelele Afrika (which literally translates as God Bless Africa, and is now the national anthem since apartheid ended in South Africa), that instilled a sense of pride and defiance in the face of a racist history that was slowly receding just across the Swazi-South African borders. I learned from close friends, from numerous countries in Southern and East Africa, about the role that their federal governments played by offering safety and safe passage for the anti-apartheid leaders of the ANC and other banned parties, as well as granted refuge or resources to train soldiers in military combat. In the late ’90s, I would learn more about the instrumental role of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, as I read Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom.

The three years in Swaziland were a time when dinner conversations between my parents at home revealed to me that certain elements in the US government preferred that the National Party or another white political party win the free elections in 1994. There was not a chance of it happening, considering that millions of people lined up and stood and waited for hours for the one time in their life that they could vote for Nelson Mandela. He was one of more than 20 (or more) candidates for president. It was a ballot so long that it had to be printed on a piece of paper as long or longer than legal size. And the faces of each candidate and the unique, colorful logo of their respective political party was included next to their names on the ballot to assist illiterate adults to be able to vote. These were some of the little yet profound aspects of what it meant to live in such proximity to freedom.

These were some of the moments as a 13, 14 and 15 year old living in Mbabane, Swaziland. After two years and ten months in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President a month or two before we left and I would return to New Mexico and the US. It was overcast in Mbabane, the morning of the inauguration. I sat in the tv room of our house, owned by the American Embassy, with my mother, Lena, Louis and one other domestic worker, who’s name I have forgotten. Lena was partially blind in one eye because she could not afford or had not been able to access necessary health services when she was younger. Louis sat and recognized nearly every foreign leader and dignitary who was shown on tv, able to say their name and their home country before the commentators on the South African Broadcasting Channel (or Corporation) could. The five of us sitting, largely in silence, as we witnessed the enormity of the day’s activities and the history happening a few hundred kilometers across the border.

***

Mandela’s life is an anamoly to my psyche and my sense of history. He lived to be a very old man when so many indicators meant that he should not have. In fact, all his time imprisoned in South Africa’s prison systems was one factor that resulted in his long life. He was a severe enough threat to the apartheid country that they would have attempted to assassinate him in the streets of London, Nairobi or some other foreign city had he been free to live abroad. Yet, exile was not a part of the path in the life of Nelson Mandela. And as I sit and remember the touchstones of my life, I recall that Chris Hani and Steve Biko and thousands of other political activists in South Africa and the world have had their lives brought to a premature end. Violence and fear being tools to kill and end the lives of individuals and social movements seeking justice, dignity and freedom.

***

South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution is a truly radical political document. It protected the rights of sexual minorities when no other nation on the planet was doing so. Rather than be mired in vengeance and animosity, South Africa took steps to practice democracy in the months and years immediately after a majority of people gained freedom.

Mandela’s passing is a teachable moment. A chance to recognize that this is what it feels like to live history, to be a part of the history that is being made today. We tend to diminish the small actions, unseen moments that constitute so many days in our lives. Yet, when we recognize our own connection to the prophets that live among us, the bigness of history is mirrored back to us. It is not just the history of Mandela or MLK, but all of us who were participants or bystanders to the social movements that they are connected to.

A 5280 Family Reunion

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35 members of five generations of family who range in age from 7 weeks to a few weeks shy of 93 assemble in Denver and Aurora this weekend. Select moments of storytelling have been:
• two consecutive days of pool with my niece and nephew, including a 10-minute clinic on grips, how to place their left hands on the pool table, and steadying the cue on the padding between a thumb and forefinger. Last night, Diego said “thanks for showing me, Uncle Chad. I wasn’t this good at pool before.”
• telling Ms. Gayles, Aunt Barbara and Grandmother about ten years of vegetables and the proliferation of CSAs, community gardens and urban farms. It’s amazing when a diabetic says, “I had no idea that young people, your age, were so into their food like that,” as we talked about jobs, health, diets, fish chromosomes in tomatoes, the proliferation of and popular resistance to GMOs, and the future.
• stories of Count, Candy and GoGo, who were George’s three Dobermans in Dallas. Count, who was a guard dog, walked Sherry down the street one day causing a neighbor, who could recognize any Doberman, called George to tell him where his daughter and dog were.

regurgitating poison

yes, the vitriol, the hurt, the despondency that people are experiencing and spewing is intense. sometimes it feels like people are regurgitating the poison that’s been fed or forced into them.

i have been cautious, quiet and calm about not being subjected to too much. the systems of media and cable tv are as complicit in this moment as a courtroom in florida. and then getting small glimpses of the behavior, and wrong-speech has been humiliating. so, i have been around few dosages of it.

and, i was writing about my mixed race self on monday morning, which i shared with a friend. how my mom’s whiteness — as the only (wholly) white person in a six person family — connected me to cousins who have given me life, experiences, knowledge and stories that have been instrumental in cultivating compassion for someone who is racist. that has been a doorway for me to be compassionate, and just be with someone who is misogynist, sexist, abusive. and compassion has given me a better sense of my own self to note when i am splayed out emotionally, psychologically or physically.

so, it is an intense moment. our humanity is ill, and this is one more reminder and instance of it. yet, there are still ways to find life, goodness, love, brilliance and beauty in everyday interactions.

Recalling Sophisticated Lady from Charleston to Tuskegee at 92

I called my grandmother, Jane Draine (nee Jackson, Jones), yesterday. At 92, I could hear the surprise and delight that I had called her at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning.

At one point, she used a sentence of appreciation that I had called, signaling that she was wrapping up our call. In those few minutes, Grandmother told me about her health, had humored herself and me about the quality of food that institutions serve our elders and grandparents and remarked about her memory and my mobility. But, I wasn’t done talking since I had more questions for her. I had called to hear her voice as well as pose select questions to her. The mastery of asking questions is increasingly become a tool from the abyss of my soul where I forge history and family.

I asked her about the time and her and Grandfather Hooks’ decisions revolving around my father in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. In 1960, my grandparents moved from Denver back to Tuskegee. I asked how much Emmett Till factored into her thoughts, heart and soul as she readied to move from integrated Colorado to Jim Crow Alabama. I have been reading about Emmett Louis Till in James H. Cone’s “The Cross and The Lynching Tree” (published by Orbis Books in 2011) this week. When Cone reminded me of Till’s barbaric mutilation and how his mother’s choice to “not let her baby die in vain” was an inflection point for Black America. As Cone says himself, and quotes John Lewis as saying, Emmett Till made them and countless other black boys realize “it could have been me.” It was 1955, when my father would have just turned 12 years old. It turns out that my dad and Emmett share the same birthday, Till born two years earlier.

In 1960, my dad would be 17 when his parents moved to Tuskegee. I read Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Sons” a month ago, which reminded me on the barbarism of lynching, schooled me on sharecropping, and illustrated how widespread the brutality pushing Blacks out of the South was. Wilkerson makes the case that the Great Migration of six million African Americans between 1910-1970 was one of the (if not the) greatest historical events of the 20th Century US. This was a tide that my grandparents went against as they returned in 1960.

As Grandmother recounted to me over the phone, she and Grandfather chose to send my dad to Charleston, West Virginia, during his senior year to live with Buddy and Grandad Jackson, his maternal grandparents. Grandmother mentioned how the people at the Tuskegee Institute advised them that the high school was not as good.

53 years later, I cannot know how much of it was the pull of better educational options in Charleston or the push of the possibility of lynching and Jim Crow reality. My father would have been young, black and on the verge of manhood. Perceived as a young adult, yet carrying the simple not-knowingness of childhood in a body that was getting bigger and stronger. He would have been coming into a culture, setting and interpersonal dynamics of Tuskegee far different from the Denver he knew as a youth and teenager.

I asked more questions, about decades earlier when Grandmother’s parents hosted Duke whenever he came to Charleston, WV. She said how they held “all of the social activities” whenever he was in town. I asked her if that meant any meals and down time that Duke and his band were not performing. Yes, she said.

Grandmother mentioned how he began writing “Sophisticated Lady” one time he was in their home. Duke first came when she was 7, 8 or 9 years old. She cannot remember when it was the last time she saw him (as he passed in May 1974), though it was in New York. Grandfather approached “Duke” to let him know that they were there and how Duke affectionately recalled “Janie” from Charleston.

I asked her if she was excited during his visits, which she seemed nonchalant about when he was there. Yet, Grandmother recalled how she attempted to learn some of Duke’s songs, including Sophisticated Lady, on a few instruments she had as a child.

All of this family, legacy and lore in a sweet sixteen minutes on a Sunday morning.

Talking story, from HI by AMB

all talking is stories, which contain:
– stories have a beginning, middle or end.
– what is the point or moral of a story?
– if you lose your way, pause + relocate [self]
– feel it through
– it may have things in common, with others, it is yours.
– be honest.