Our movement, but not our moment

Dear Rev. Al:

This is still our movement, but this isn’t our moment.

photo by David Shankbone

photo by David Shankbone

Our youth are warriors, and we must trust them to lead. Our role as elders is to arm them well with history and bail funds and  strategy; to shelter them and heal them deeply; and to sing to them unceasing stories of  courage, triumph and love. We have already taught them how to speak truth;  we must entrust them with  the mic. We can now be the wisdom that listens.

One more thing.  Our job is indeed to gather parades and stage  festivals  — to greet our young  with praise and honor. We can do this without a microphone, or a federal building  as a backdrop.  In fact, this is  what we must do for the very important people who are leading us into a new understanding of power, and why #Justice4All  can only begin where #BlackLivesMatter. This is the one role that only we elders can fill –  to  celebrate our next generation with honor and respect, whenever, however, and in whatever unexpected places  they arrive.

With abiding love for the torch of justice you have long carried, and now must pass on,

-Mistinguette

 

Nommo

Nommo is the KiKongo word for power of the word to manifest material change.

Nommo is the thing we love about poets, the power of the spoken word. Nommo means you have to watch your mouth, because what comes out of it gives birth to real things in the material world. Nommo means  that to name something is to make it sacred. Nommo requires us to pray out loud, to find words for what we most desire.

#BlackLivesMatter is an act of nommo.

So is  #ShutItDown.

From Cleveland to Ferguson, with love

I am watching Twitter and TV, where rage spills onto the streets of Missouri like gasoline. But my heart is not in Ferguson tonight.

My heart (and my body) are in the town where I was born. As I prepare for a holiday dinner with my family, in downtown Cleveland people are using their bodies to block traffic on the freeway, and to stop business as usual on Public Square.

Cleveland is a hard-luck town. A depopulated, post-industrial, majority-black city, half of the families here make less than $25,000 a year. The kind of college-educated activism that has other communities taking to the streets is rare and thin in Cleveland: folk here are too busy trying to hold body and soul together though a long, grey winter of lake-effect snow to go protest about anything.

Peter Fong PDBut Tamir Rice died Sunday.  He was shot to death by a police officer who assumed a pellet gun was a real firearm, and that the 12 year old child holding it was a man. Rice died less than one week after a $3 million dollar settlement award was made for the 2013  wrongful deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, the unarmed couple who were shot 137 times by Cleveland Police officers while they were still inside their car.

People in Cleveland are just as angry and weary of police violence as the people of Sanford, Florida or New York City or Ferguson, Missouri. But they did not riot.  They did not hold a press conference filled with back-up bodies from out of town holding poignant signs. Their focus was not the surrender of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

They did what Clevelanders know how to do best. They spoke aloud their anguish, and  then used their bodies and courage to bend the public will. They stood across the interstate and sang out clearly what they wanted: “No prisons. No cops. The violence must stop.”  Like a funeral cortege that blocks traffic for a mile, they required every driver to pause and acknowledge death’s presence. They insisted that the extrajudicial killings of black people be at least an hour of inconvenience, rather than just another momentary drive-by through other people’s pain as broadcast on the evening news. They physically claimed the public square to embody the powerful act of refusal, rather than simply speaking truth to some outside power.

People in Cleveland did not riot, although they have every reason to.  Like Ferguson, Cleveland is a city starkly segregated by race and class. When Clevelanders gathered at a forum at Cudell Community Center to ask questions about the death of Tamir Rice, they openly mourned and openly demanded accountability from their Mayor and local police.  They spoke with authority to the notion that black-on-black violence is the greatest threat to black lives:  “To us mothers who are losing children, it seems to me that the police are the biggest gang.”

But in Cleveland, there have been no riots because Cleveland is not Ferguson. This is true, in part, because what Cleveland wants is something more tangible than to raise a voice of protest.  Clevelanders know that the police officer who stood on the hood of Timothy Russell’s car and fired 15 shots into his already lifeless body was indicted on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, and they want to see his trial. Clevelanders know that the 63 other officers involved in Russell’s death have been suspended while a federal investigation takes place, and they want to see this process result in more than slaps on the wrist.

This is also true because Police Chief Calvin Williams listened to angry, grieving parents and released the film of the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice. He responded to calls for greater accountability with a public promise to the citizens of Cleveland that their police will be equipped with body cameras within the next 12 weeks. As a black man, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has admitted he knows how people are indeed treated differently by police based on what they look like and who they are; and he also described how hard he has worked to reform the way the police department operates in spite of repeated legal and institutional barriers.  He asked those who came to protest where were their voices for change when he was being rebuffed in this effort to make the police serve the citizens of this city.

No matter where I may live, I am forever made of this complicated town. My earliest memories are of the long, hot summer when the Hough neighborhood went up in flames over a history of segregation enforced by police violence.  Fifty years later, we watch that neighborhood still struggle to find rebirth; although segregation and police violence persist, we are not eager to repeat that history.

So, as I watch young people’s rage spills onto the streets of Missouri like gasoline, I do not look to my hometown for a spark.

Here, in the city that owns my heart, we will bury another black child. We will understand our place in the roll call of shame, adding names to the list of state sanctioned murders of black children and black young men.  But Cleveland is unlikely to join the youthful fires of protest.

This city of rust and unbreakable soul will use its grief and discipline to do what it has always done: to slowly and inexorably make change.  We are makers, we people from Cleveland. We once bent steel and the backs of men into the beating heart of industry. We will bring that same strength and persistence to the long work of building a new kind of community, using the heat of our sadness and anger to forge a different way forward.

This essay was published 11/28/14  in BELT Magazine.

#ResultsMatter

This  post of mine  originally appeared  on the blog of the Interaction Institute for Social  Change:

I struggle to find my place in this year of insurrection against the state sanctioned murders of young black men. My knees are too old to run from riot police, my lungs too scarred to survive teargas. I’m wrestling with what it means to be a 50-year-old black American woman who has inherited the benefits of civil rights advancement, and upon whose shoulders the next generations should safely and securely stand. And I am struggling with what it means to have failed.

I have failed to properly name the extrajudicial killings of Sean Bell in 2006 and Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Jonathan Ferrell in 2013 and Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown and Darrien Hunt in 2014, and I have failed to stop their deaths. I wasn’t there bravely sewing letters on a banner to be dropped in protest that stitched past and present together: “a man was lynched today.” I have failed the memory of 41 bullets striking the body of Amadou Diallo in 1999; failed the decapitated body of James Byrd, dragged to death behind a truck, in 1989. Most of all, I have failed to be watchful and articulate after the revenge killing of Michael Donald in 1981, that moment which destroyed the private club of the Ku Klux Klan and left its role to be taken up by the state.

I want to believe that I stand in solidarity with young activists in Ferguson, but their very existence indicts me.

FeaturedImage_ResultsMatter_1200x900 (1)

I am part of a generation that believed that black people needed “voice”. We invested in institutions that promised to advocate on our behalf and to win. Today, still receiving mail from these organizations, I wonder how can they claim success? Why aren’t they amplifying younger, more urgent, voices? Today’s young people need voice, but what they need more is power.

Meanwhile, the same old Jim Crow that reconstructed himself from the ashes of slavery has been uninterrupted in his work. He has brought back the vagrancy stop-and-frisk pipeline to the chain gang. He has dusted off his shoulders and dares to call himself “New.”

Results matter. They are not optional or aspirational. Without results, people I love will continue to die. We social justice workers often emphasize careful attention to process, because just ends can only be achieved by just means.  But just results also matter. We often emphasize cultivating relationships of solidarity and reciprocity, sometimes so emphatically it seems that “relationship” is all that matters. But results matter. Finishing the job of making it legal to be a young black man on a public street in the United States America, matters.

If you listen closely, you can hear our young in Ferguson reminding us: We have no time for voices and processes and relationships that do not yield meaningful change. Results always matter. Because black lives, our lives, matter.

 

To Begin Again

typewriter I started writing the Intentional 50 blog to write my way into my fifth decade: Turning 50 With Purpose. This blog helped me to build  a a community to explore what it means to enter the Decade of Mastery.

I laid down this blog three years ago, just after  my 50th birthday. I thought it had completed its service.

I’ve spent much of the last three years  more dedicated to writing. And I’ve spent the last  six months dithering about starting a new blog. I worried about  what to call it, and what it’s theme should be, and who I thought would be its readers, and how often I should schedule posts. At some point, I understood that planning had gotten in the way of doing.  I need to just write the thing. Whenever I had something to write, however it needed to be said, to be read by whomever found it useful.

And so, for now, Intentional 50 is back. Like me, it has a renewed identity, one with greater scope and depth.  Like me,  it did not get a cosmetic facelift  (although all options are still on the table for  [hair] color.). This is my little space to share what I am thinking about, creating,  moving and being moved by in the world, and sharing them in conversation with you .

I’m still writing from the perspective of the Fifth Decade, but exploring more ideas, and offering  them with greater confidence. Perhaps I will worry about a “new look” or a new “brand” or a new something else – but later. For now, this is a space for rough drafts,  for trying out new ideas  to see how they work. (One lovely thing about the Fifth Decade is knowing myself so well that  I am open to influence, and no longer afraid to be wrong in public.)

I invite you to follow me regularly, peek in once in awhile, or share something you liked here with  a friend. Let me know what you think, especially when you disagree. The difference between writing alone and blogging is that the latter is an invitation for good company.

It’s good to be back.

-Mistinguette

The Key

In less than two weeks, I’ll cross the threshold from 49 to 50. This year, and this blog, have flown by. I haven’t written much of late because I’ve been fervently and joyfully working night and day on the things I intended to do to make myself ready for this new decade!

To approach my fiftieth birthday with intention and attention has been a great gift to myself. I’ve shed both the limiting habit of self-doubt, and fifteen unwanted pounds. It’s been no secret to anyone but me that I’m exceptionally smart, but for the first time *I* am fully confident that my tremendous intellect, imperfect creativity and bold curiosity have an important place in this world.

In reflection, a few things have been key to this “training up” for turning toward my decade of power.

One has been recognizing the things that drive me, and putting them to work on my own behalf. I have always been someone who carefully calculates, then takes, profitable risks. Once I recognized this, I intentionally cultivated that risk-taking into entrepreneurial savvy, creating both a successful small business and a growing social history project, right in the middle of this economic recession.

Another  key has been learning to treat my self – especially my embodied self — with kindness. This has led to greater patience with pain, and more energy. It’s also had the unusual side-effect of putting my most serious illness, a fatal tendency to take myself too seriously, into remission.

But the key that matters most isn’t metaphorical; it’s a literal key. It’s the door key to a place called The Writer’s Mill, a co-working space for serious writers. It’s a place full of people who are, in the words of Mary Heaton Vorse, “applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” every day to write  articles, and blogs, stories and books. It’s a place for people who say without mumbling “writer” when asked who they are in the world. It’s the place I’ve been too afraid to say that I belong. Until now.

I plan to unlock my fiftieth year with the key to that front door.

Gratitude is not the same as Perspective

I was on a mountaintop in Vermont during Hurricane Irene.  I was anxious for days before it hit , obsessively following the NOAA weather report as if I was a farmer or a meteorologist. In fact, I  was teaching at a retreat center high on a mountaintop. I feared what 55 mile an hour winds would do to our tents and tree limbs.

We sat out the worst of it in a 150 year old barn. Under flickering electric lights, we learned that such winds are not unusual high above the Mad River Valley in winter. We were safe and warm during the windstorm, cared for by people who knew the landscape and the way to live on this land. Retreat participants and staff all  contemplated the power of nature with our hands wrapped around mugs of tea.

The next morning we walked around in wonder at the streams and small waterfalls nature had carved overnight. The sky was washed clean and blue, and sun sparkled on water gurgling from culverts. The sound of trickling run-off across water bars on the logging road lulled us to sleep at night. Our greatest misfortune was the loss of a lamb, taken by a coyote under the cover of the driving rain.

It wasn’t until we left, three days later, that we witnessed the devastation of the towns at the foot of our mountains. The road home had been washed away. The farmers whose crop had fed us stared at the destruction of year’s labor; we drove slowly by homes and stores shuttered against debris in a road that had become a river. Even 100 miles away, the bridge that takes me home was closed down, twisted and unsafe from the power of all that water.

It took me eight hours by backroads to make the three-hour drive home. The stretch of  highway that would take me home had been twisted and crumbled, as if by a giant’s hands. This gave me a long  time to think.

I wondered about  privilege and gratitude, and how I often think that the former can be cured by the latter.  I noticed that  am full of gratitude, but mostly for the  things I that can see. I thought about the lives that mine depend on – those who feed me, make wool for my sweaters and power for my electric toothbrush — and how  I cannot see them until the work of their hands has been swept away.

I count my losses – a host’s lamb, a nights sleep — and notice that there is a difference between being grateful for what I have,  and having perspective about where I stand in the world, and how this bounty arrives to me.

The Responsibility of Story: A Fifty Year Passage

We humans are social beings; we live on food, water and the power of story. We linger at the holiday dinner table (or, as children, hide beneath the tablecloth) to hear the stories of who we are and how we became a family.  We pour the small-town shanachie another Harp lager, and settle in to listen to the old, old story of our tribe and clan, even if it’s a story set in our lifetime. We answer every krik?  with a resounding krak! calling out for stories of our essential selves cast as tricksters and mermaids and foolish men. We honor the tellers of facts with riches and staying awake through their Powerpoint presentations  and lifetime academic posts. But we honor our storytellers with praise, publication and positive reviews, and sometimes a small measure of fortune.

As I move toward fifty, I have discovered new work that makes me the keeper and the teller of precious stories told anew. I am deeply immersed in understanding what makes a story compelling, and what makes a story precious and true. To do this work with honor, I must summon my decades of skill as a writer, a scholar and a lover of culture in order to transmit these stories with great care.

The care with which a narrative is passed on can shape what kinds of stories a people are allowed to tell ourselves ever afterward. Commercial advertising has told us stories amplified and specially designed to build temporary connections based on the gift or illusion of a briefly shared common language. Now, a five minute performance poem or a popular, if dubious, memoir offers equally fast, brutal stories that gather us together just long enough to feel something other than lost and alone. Casual artists and serious journalists stream three minute bites of digital video to tell us the story of who we are now, flashing instant connection and stories of difference, with or without context, across the globe. The speed of these stories draws us in with their immediacy; their one-off nature, and hearing them in private, prevents us from testing their truth across generations or noticing whether their wisdom still applies when shared with new people in new places.

This week I am grateful to be almost-fifty. Those decades of understanding story help me keep my balance as I wade the stream between stories that tell the truth about difference and stories with verisimilitude: the comforting appearance of being true or real. The bottom of that river is slippery and full of stones: the way popular movie The Help helps some of us to dwell in illusion and while providing others the occasion to tell a counter-narrative; my effort to help a client release their desire to appropriate a “truthy” story about indigenous culture and to grasp instead a story that is resonant because it is powerfully true.

As I learn about the responsibility involved in carrying an authentic story, I am learning to strip the geegaws of verisimilitude from the story I tell myself about who I am. I need fewer of the tools of drama to say who I am in this world with you: no costume, no special lighting, no symbolic colors, no props. I can choose to use some of them occasionally and lightly, but without depending on them because I know how to tell a story strongly rooted in veracity: my half-century practice of finding and telling the many, many stories that make up the truth.

The responsibility for telling my story, and the story of others, will require at least fifty years of wisdom. I will need to offer more than just engaging stories told with good intention. I will need all the wisdom of my fifty years of practice of humility, fifty years of strength from holding the creative tension of diverse points of view, and fifty years of learning what truly nourishes us. At fifty, I become an elder who is responsible for telling stories that are more than entertainment. I am becoming one who is responsible for bearing stories to help each of us stay connected and alive.

Right Where You Are Now

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a trillionaire, and you are going to be right where you are now!” said an angry Zach to his dad.

How easily a seven-year-old kid can chill a grown man’s soul.

Zach’s taunt goes straight to the heart of unspeakable fear of middle age: This is it. The best you are ever going to be is right where you are now. And right where you are right now,  quickly approaching fifty, is not where you ever dreamed you’d be. Not even close.

I spent my youth cultivating dreams. What kid didn’t fantasize that she would grow up to be a millionaire (back before the wealth gap made mere billionaires irrelevant) or a famous writer, or simply well-known and better-liked than she’d been in high school? As we got older, those dreams became more modest and concrete in their intentions.  After a few glasses of wine, one friend confesses a long-held secret plan to live in Paris, at least for a little while. A peripatetic artist tells me that he dreams of coming home to a house instead of an apartment, and seeing a light on at the window because someone inside is waiting for him.

Our forties mark the last, best, chance to make those dreams come true. They are latest reasonable years for white weddings and fat babies; the last chance for promotions that say we’re still somehow climbing the corporate ladder. Our late forties are the last time we’ll get to start over in a new place with the idea that someday, here, we will have old friends.

This is sobering news. It leaves me breathless to think that my life is now composed of middles and endings, not beginnings.Forty-nine is a map of reckoning, marked with a big, red arrow that says “You Are Here.” It’s not where I imagined I would be.

And I am terrified of a life in which I might remain here, fixed but still aspiring; trapped, in Zach’s words, right where I am now.

Overheard at Costco

“I sometimes feel bad about my saggy fifty-year old boobs.

But then I see saggy man-boobs, and it makes me  feel better!”

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