#TellMeABlackPowerStory today

I am living in a state of rage. This may come as a surprise to those who know me as a nice lady wearing a string of pearls and sensible heels who helps people get through the details of their bumpy board transitions and orderly organizational launches.

femme-black-powerBut no matter what I do or what I wear, I am a black woman who is awake.  It is not possible to be a black woman who is awake without anger these days.  If one is awake, there are so many reasons  to be either angry or in despair.  As the Fran Landesman tune goes:  “All the news is bad again/ Kiss your dreams goodbye.”

And the news is that the  police officer who shot Rumain Brisbon because he was armed with a bottle of painkillers was not charged with a crime: he will be back on the beat in Phoenix soon.  The news tells us that one year later, the only girls from Chibok , Nigeria who have been freed from their mass kidnapping and sexual enslavement are the handful who escaped on their own. The news is full of the repeating  images of Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Lavall Hall being shot to death by the police, black bodies dying over and over again  in repeating loops of snuff reality TV.  The news is that “religious freedom restoration acts ”  mean that while I don’t have to  get my health insurance through Hobby Lobby, I  still need to be ready to be  refused service by some business based on my sexual orientation  when consulting with new clients  in Indiana.

Anger is a useful emotion. It is the feeling we are supposed to have when we are injured or violated.  Although it has become popular to treat anger as a cause of physical and spiritual illness, the purpose of anger is to engender the physical and emotional energy to resist violation, even when that resistance is the simple act of survival.  The poet Audre Lorde reminds us:

Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.(The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, 1981)

Anger is also a bridge- a way over the river of despair, a way to move from one place to another. Stories about our anger can unleash energy for protest, or focus our attention on resistance.  Stories about anger can give us the will to regenerate when we have been displaced, or the creative spark to reinvent a new path toward beauty and freedom. And what is on the other side of that bridge?  Liberation.  Self-determination. Power

So, if the other side of anger stories are power stories, then what I need to move forward from my state of chronic rage is to hear and tell to tell black power stories right now. In the face of  stories of the terror of gender-based slavery, I need to hear more black woman power stories. When all the news can tell me is stories of black boys and men shot to death, I need to hear stories of living, resisting, empowered black men.  When it barely makes the  news that five transwomen of color were murdered during the first 6 weeks of 2015 , I need stories of deep black sisterhood and black trans triumph over patriarchy just to keep breathing. To keep moving toward freedom instead of dwelling forever in rage, I need to hear black justice and power stories.

So what do I want  from you? I want you to #TellMeABlackPowerStory  today.

The poet Christina Springer recently launched the tag  ‪#‎TellMeABlackPowerStory, saying:

I have a great need right now for Black Power Stories. Simple stories. Big stories. Mundane stories. Helped My Son With A Project Stories. Cooked a Healthful Meal Stories. Planted Some Vegetables Stories. Smiled At A Random Black Child At The Store Stories. Won An Award Stories. Gave Back To Community Stories. Woke Up And Went To Work Even Though I Didn’t Feel Like It Stories. We need more Black Power Stories. Black Power Stories are Black Love Stories, Black Kindness Stories, Black Helping Stories, Black Honor Stories, Black Generosity Stories.

So friends, I am asking you to #TellMeABlackPowerStory  in the comments below. Or post one on your Facebook page, or share it with me on Twitter.  Show Me A Black Power Story on Instagram or Vine. Spit it in a rhyme or sing it in a poem in your kitchen, on your stoop, through a mic on a stage. Tag it #TellMeABlackPowerStory. Repost it. Pass it on. Storify it. Make a Tumblr. Write short piece about it on Gawker or ForHarriet or wherever you give and get your news. Amplify it so our stories can find each other, and make a vision that can carry us forward.

The other side of anger is power. And I am one of many who needs to hear some stories of the power that’s awaiting all of us on the other side of this seemingly endless rage. Right now,  the act of staying awake has me longing for a black power story. The news is so bad that this moment actually requires  ten thousand black power stories, each one repeated a hundred times over.  So I have come here to ask you to help me put them out into the world.

I deeply need to hear you #TellMeABlackPowerStory today.

Lessons From Snow

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

I live in New England, where everything is under a thick blanket of snow, and the temperatures are in the single digits. Many forms of transportation have come to a full halt. And I still needed to get to New York to lead a Facilitative Leadership training! My train was very late, and I realized, I could fume and panic, but that isn’t likely to change the situation.  (Tried that. Didn’t work.) Since leadership often means noticing and naming what is really happening right now, I decided to take a few moments to notice what this weather can teach me about leadership.

North-eastern US shut down due to historic blizzard

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Three Qualities of Leadership that can Catalyze Change

350px-Tree_roots_cross_sectionThis post was originally written for UVM Brainwaves, a blog at the University of Vermont Rubenstein School of  the Environment and Natural Resources where I teach about leadership for sustainability.


Someone I once supervised told me my leadership ethic was clear and simple: Pay close attention. Do good work. Make no excuses.

I had never thought of it quite that way, but she gave a fair description of what I value as a leader. Upon taking a closer look, I would recommend these qualities for anyone who wants to be an effective agent of change.

3 Effective Qualities of Leadership:

1. Pay Close Attention

Leadership is the act of making an intervention within a system, trying to change the results that a system produces. Unfortunately, every problem we try to solve is part of a system that is much bigger and more complex than we can ever see! That’s why effective change leaders make the lowest-level intervention they possibly can and then pay attention to what shifts. Sometimes that change is local and immediate, and sometimes it is broad and long-term.

During the recent wave of police killings of young black men across America, mayors prioritized “controlling the spin” of their cities’ stories. But when a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy pistol was killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, Mayor Frank G. Jackson took unusual action by holding a public session at the community center where the shooting happened to answer questions and listen to community concerns. By making this low-level intervention, quickly hearing from the people who were most affected, Mayor Jackson did two things: first, he achieved the immediate goal of preventing destruction caused by civil disturbances by letting people know they had been heard; second, he modeled the importance of addressing problems by listening and sharing information quickly.

By paying close attention to how a gentle intervention affected other parts of the community system, including angry community activists and a potentially reactionary police union, Mayor Jackson saw that he didn’t need a big intervention with lots of fanfare. Rather, his subtle method achieved the change he wanted: peaceful resolution to a violent situation and a police force held accountable to the community it serves.

2. Do Good Work

Leadership is a function, not a role. It is different from being the person whose charisma, job title or position in the organization labels them a leader. The fact is that no single person leads a movement. Looking again at leadership as an intervention, a leader is anyone who helps a social structure change the way it works in order to produce different results. We see this in many social movements that don’t have a single leader—they are not leaderless, they are leader-full.

My favorite leadership story is about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Many people know about the leadership of Rosa Parks. A few even know about Mrs. Park’s predecessor in refusing to give up her seat, 16-year-old Claudette Colvin. But the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a leader-full movement made possible because of information: information about bus boycotts that had worked in other cities, information about where to find a carpool to get to work, information about which church was having a rally or a fish-fry fundraiser to benefit people who were out of work.

That information was shared on flyers printed in secret by a professor and distributed by her students. Jo Ann Robinson chose to lead through work that was of the greatest support to the movement, doing it consistently and well. If Professor Robinson had not done the good, but humble, leadership work of cranking the handle of a mimeograph machine, there could not have been a massive organized response in the wake of Rosa Parks’s arrest, and few would have heard the inspiring voice of the new, young preacher in town named Martin Luther King Jr.

3. Make No Excuses

Good leadership requires recognizing change as it happens and naming that change out loud. Leaders are accountable for observing the impacts of their interventions, noticing both the intended effects and also those they did not expect.

Leaders advocating for healthy-food options popularized the term “food deserts” to describe areas where people had no access to full-service grocery stores with the intent to point out that, in a nation of plenty, some Americans still have limited access to food. Many people thus became interested in solving the problem of food deserts. However, there was one major problem: some of the people living without access to a grocery store hated the term “food deserts!” They pointed out that deserts are natural phenomena to which life can adapt, but economic disinvestment in poor communities is not. In trying to label their movement, leaders had gotten it wrong, and their desire to help people get access to food actually alienated those most affected.

To adapt to this unforeseen problem, food-access advocates began to work in more accountable ways with community members affected by the absence of grocery stores. Together, they approached food access as a social-justice issue rather than a natural phenomenon, coining the term “food justice.” This vocabulary connected a lack of access to food to larger systems of environmental, economic and social harms, and helped leaders target these underlying causes.

If you asked me how to be effective as a leader, I could tell you a thousand deep, long stories about systems, relationships and what it means to lead. Or, I could simply remember the words my colleague said to me: Pay close attention. Do good work. Make no excuses.

– See more about the UVM Masters in Sustainability program at: http://learn.uvm.edu/programs/m-s-leadership-sustainability/network/


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,




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.


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.

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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.


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.

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