The discipline that love demands

Eighteen months ago, Beyoncé and I said we needed to wipe our tears and get into formation.  Folks found that really valuable at the time, but lately, I’ve noticed a lot of folks are so exhausted that they’ve mislaid their discipline.  So I am writing to remind all of us about what it means to be in formation

Formation means that we are self-disciplined, self-governing and focused on our goal. We act in response to solid, community-held values, not easy-to-manipulate feelings in heat of frustration.  Formation means we work together to remove the power of misogyny, white supremacy, xenophobia, classism – every form of oppression— as if our lives depended on it because they do.  We did not come here for play-play.

Formation means we each choose the places where we put pressure on the system to change and we sustain that pressure. This is some every-single-day struggle: no weekend warriors here.  Some of us boldly name the future we want and the patterns we see, like #AbolishICE and #MeToo. Others of us amp the signal in Wednesday night Bible study or work it into revised corporate policies. We work to dismantle structures while also working to reduce harm in the ways our current structures work – some of us bail folks outta jail who are there just because they’re poor while others work to end mass incarceration. Some of us are called to make space for thinking and being whole, and some of us come to dwell in that space for a day or a week or a lifetime.  There is nothing like the memory of freedom to sustain us in times of struggle.

we care beleive in loveSustained liberation struggle requires more than showing up as famous or fierce. It is the discipline of holding our part of the line and trusting others to hold theirs without policing them for not being “woke” enough. Formation is the rigorous practice of focusing our gaze on our love for the oppressed, including our oppressed selves, rather than being distracted by deploring those desperate enough to commit loveless acts. Anger has a purpose: to give us the energy to defend against immediate harm. But a steady diet of outrage poisons our metabolism so that we must eat out the heart of own community to survive. Formation allows us to make useful indelible ink from our rage, and uses it to write how much we care upon the palms of our hands for the whole world to see.

I’m thinking about formation because some days I fall into weariness, hopelessness and vengeful thoughts too. Other queer black women remind me that whenever I have time to feel vengeful, I have too much time on my hands. Alice Walker taught me that resistance is the secret of joy, so our hearts and hands must be joyfully engaged in meaningful work for liberation instead of wallowing in self-righteousness.  And Audre Lorde taught me that we need each other’s help to be mindful of the tools we choose for this resistance work, lest we find ourselves with the master’s tools in our hands mistakenly believing that they are the kind of power we need to destroy the master’s house.

I’m thinking about formation today because lately, I smell fresh blood. Often it is on the mouths of comrades who fight so fiercely and blindly that they wound whatever is in their path, including each other.  Because my gift is persistence, I will keep calling them in with a fierce and rigorous love. We must discipline ourselves to show care in this way, if not for moral reasons, then for practical ones.  If we fall out of love’s formation, we become hate-filled, contemptuous, compassionless people ourselves. If our resistance and self-defense becomes a taste for inflicting suffering, we will soon no longer care whose blood is on our tongue.


Beatriz for Dinner: a review of Miguel Areta’s film “Beatriz at Dinner”

Beware the unexpected invitation to dine with strangers with sharp, shiny teeth: you may find yourself the main course, served tartare.

Beatriz at Dinner, a film written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Areta, promises to be a mediation for our times. It features a set of slightly exotic but familiar characters: Beatriz, the massage therapist/alternative healer who is vegetarian because she cannot bear the suffering of animals; and the vulgar real estate developer Grant and his wife Cathy, Beatriz’s pampered but compassionate client. We join these characters for a dinner where Beatriz, an inadvertent guest, finds herself sparring with Grant’s client, the sanguine Trumpian billionaire Doug Strutt. Beatriz’s sincerity exposes the pretenses and discomforts endured by Strutt’s sycophants, who depend on his wealth to trickle down the Canyon into their in-ground swimming pools.

The film promises that Beatriz’s presence will challenge and break open the shallow veneer that covers the brutality of relations between white privilege and racialized oppression, between those who provide services and those who are served. But Beatriz at Dinner ultimately serves up Beatriz’s bloody heart as just another course at dinner, an interesting if uncomfortable interlude before the next divertissement comes along.

In trailers for the film, Salma Hayek’s subtle and mobile face as Beatriz shines as she engages in unspoken confrontation with the embodiment of exploitative power. Unfortunately, this trailer is the whole story. I would warn of spoilers here if there was a plot to give away, but there is none. There are moments of Beatriz speaking truth to power, but they are fruitless and unthreatening protests that generate laughter at her apolitical strategy for apparently political speech. The drama is limited to these flabby tensions and resolutions, and proceeds without dramatic climax. At the end of Beatriz at Dinner, while both the characters and the viewers have been very uncomfortable, neither have any new insights. No one is changed.

What is most fascinating about Beatriz at Dinner is what it fails to imagine. While the intricate operation of how whiteness and gender support the owning class is surgically revealed, Beatriz herself fumbles without visible context or community. She makes a series of calls for help that disappoint, or go unanswered. The film’s insistence that Beatriz has no visible means of support beyond her white patrons reinforces that she is not a person, but a function. Clumsy attempts to paint Beatriz as somehow politically informed and engaged are undermined by insisting on her isolation. Stranded and antagonized, Beatriz declines an invitation to connect offered by the aproned and uniformed Spanish-speaking maid, the only other visible Latina in the film.  While revealing their shared role as merely servants in this household of the powerful, the film refuses to imagine that Beatriz could respond as part of a community that includes that maid, a community in which both women have values and identities that are not organized around serving the powerful, or resisting them. When the maid asks Beatriz “Cómo fue la cena?” she calls on both Beatriz and the filmgoer to consider the powerlessness of individual action for justice or healing in the absence community.

Beatriz at Dinner is disturbing only in the way that it closes, offering an implausible dessert of tired tropes and colonial fantasy. Beatriz becomes the wildness of nature rather than human, spiritually pure but dispossessed, the conveniently vanishing native. The closing frames offer, without comment, a vision of indigeneity that is not crushed but that simply vanishes without the effort of oppression, erasure without blood or violence. The uncomfortable conversations with Beatriz at dinner are washed away by the floating wishes of her wealthy white patrons, and a magical realist fantasy of Beatriz returned to a simpler time and place in her native Nahuatl village on a seacoast where the mangroves are still pristine.

Dinner with Beatriz has been lauded as a meditation for our times. While it’s text is about the ruthlessness of racialized class violence, its conclusion is managed deus ex machina:  violence and erasure done by an invisible hand. It depicts resistance as a parlor game, designed to entertain and provide racial and class catharsis, while reassuring the viewer of the inevitability of white male capitalist empire. Dinner with Beatriz pretends to confront the highest order of the status quo, but in fact reminds its viewers that jockeying for place in the current state of empire is their destiny. While inviting an hour of morally cleansing discomfort, Dinner With Beatriz ultimately reinforces the belief that the hierarchy in which we each hold a precarious place is the only drama that matters.

Welcome to the resistance

February 10, 2017

My dear ones,

Yes, I know you’re feeling awful. And yes, I want you to #Resist.

I also want you to remember that Americans have fought for freedom while having our children hung from trees and sold from our arms. Fought for due process while our families were hungry or interned in concentration camps. Fought for justice while  we were being intentionally infected with disease or forcibly sterilized. Organized and resisted even after being raped and after our business districts were bombed and after our homes were stolen.

So, here’s a tissue for your #PrivilegeTears and a reminder that this is the end of our ease but not the end of our lives.

Welcome to the resistance, friends. Wipe your snot. Get in formation.

With love and discipline,

Resist tim-gouw-209217-unsplash

Photo by Tim Geow

Some Notes on Resistance

This really happened.

Two days ago, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Within hours, he delivered an ominous, nationalist speech and presided over a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue; signed a vague Executive Order to reduce the costs of the Obamacare to insurance and drug companies; and removed all references from the White House web page about health care, LGBT equality and civil rights. Yesterday, in response, almost three million people across the globe – half a million of them descending upon Washington D.C. – demonstrated for women’s freedom, self-determination and human rights. Among the largest protests in US history, long time feminist activists and women new to organizing and street protest unleashed their voices and power in a collective vow to resist.

But tomorrow is Monday. Many of us are putting away our pink pussyhats, wondering what we can do to prevent settling back into business as usual. We’re not willing to accept a worldview based on the “alternative facts”  provided by a Trump White House, but are not sure what form resistance should take next. Groups like Indivisible are providing clear guidance for grassroots political action.  But three million people didn’t take to the streets simply because of the flaws in our electoral politics. Deep in our guts, we know that the very notion of democracy is what is at risk.

Friends, if we want to be part of planning our shared future, we are going to need some new rules for the road as we move into 2017.  Here are a few assumptions I think we can make about that terrain. And I have a few ideas about how to navigate it


Since 11/9, when the election results were announced, our political terrain has shifted dramatically, I believe both the meaning and the function of government has changed. As I think about how to move forward in the months ahead, here some of my operating assumptions about our government.

  1. The time for protest is over. Millions of women in the streets remind us that protest speaks truth to power through arousing anxiety about governmental legitimacy. But we no longer have a President, a Congress, and (in some places) no state legislature that is willing to respond to the ways that progressive, feminist Americans think and organize. It does not matter to them if we are one of 500 or 500,000 voices raised in protest against their actions, or whether our cause is morally or politically righteous. Their power to govern does not reside in our consent as the governed. This does not mean that we should not resist. But it does mean the time has come to shift to forms of resistance that are not only public protest. I’ll come back to this idea of non-protest resistance in a moment.  But protest – publicly objecting –  is not likely to be effective in shaping the way political power will be used by  our government.


  1. Our government is being intentionally dismantled . The President-Elect’s Cabinet appointments – someone who does not believe in Civil Rights to head the Department of Justice, someone who doesn’t know what the Department of Energy does to lead it, an opponent of employment laws as the Secretary of Labor, &tc.–  point to something more than liberal versus conservative political regime change. These choices illustrate a plan to dismantle the scope and structure of the Executive Office. One of Trump’s key strategic advisers is Steven Bannon, whose career accomplishment is motivating and providing channels for white supremacist  and anti-immigrant hate speech. Bannon describes himself as a “Leninist” because, in his own words,  “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” This means that the most powerful places for social and political change to take place may no longer be through government institutions.


  1. Republicans are creating a one-party state. The President-elect has been explicit that he holds no loyalty to the Republican Party or its positions, however he is uninterested in fettering their political or social agenda. Into that leadership vacuum have stepped new forces. Nominally gathering under the Republican “Big Tent.” these are neither politically experienced social conservatives nor novice Tea Party members elected by the evangelical vote. These new actors are creating a one-party system by eliminating the ability of democratically elected members of other parties from fulfilling the roles to which they were elected. They have been experimenting with this at the state and local level for the past decade. The appointment of city mangers in Lansing, Flint and Detroit were early experiments eliminating the power of democratically elected candidates by removing the powers of their office. When North Carolinians elected a democratic Governor, the Republican statehouse passed laws to reduce the powers of the office of Governor. This ensures that only one party would  control all of government, no matter what the electorate voted. The Constitutionally designed system of checks and balances– a balance of powers between the legislature, the judiciary and the President or Governor to guard against tyranny —  seems to be coming to an end.


  1. This new form of government will be maintained through private citizen violence. Trump’s admiration for Pyongyang style military display notwithstanding, I’m not yet clear about when and how this new form of government will use state violence against its own people. However, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of physical attacks against target groups by non-governmental citizen violence. These include anti-Jewish graffiti, physically violent attacks on gay men, and attacks on Muslim women. These acts have been  committed by Americans who explicitly stated their belief that the election of Donald Trump authorized their violence. This belief emerges from candidate Trump’s violent language during his campaign rallies, including encouraging participants to use violence against blacks, Latinos and women in attendance at those rallies. Harkening to Trump’s invocation of the era of lynch mobs, hundreds of acts of violence and hate speech, including threats of murder, leave religious and racial minority communities terrorized. This means the people who will use violence to enforce misogyny, racism  and xenophobic nationalism will be harder to identify than police offices or military forces. It will be harder to predict when they will strike and who they will target.  And they will not be made vulnerable by simply unmasking them.



If this is our current situation, then what does resistance mean?

It is hard to resist a thing for which we do not yet have language. I am not certain what to call this new group of tyrants who use Donald Trump’s bluster as a diversion while consolidating absolute power for themselves. I don’t yet know how to name the thematic, inchoate violence against Muslims and queer people and withdrawing the temporary privilege of whiteness from Jews. Yet I believe it is important to resist this pattern, even as it is not fully emerged. It is important to resist every where we can, using whatever means we can. As a queer black woman in her fifth decade, I know some practices about what resistance can look like. Here are mine: please take them, reuse them, and share your own.


  • Talk back to your TV (and other media). You know how you can’t take black folks to the movies without us talking back to the screen? That’s actually a cultural resistance practice. We learned how to allow  what was being said about us in the culture that wanted to contain and subordinate us to come into our living rooms; at the same time  we consistently refused to believe  what they were telling us about who we were. We did this by talking back, out loud. Refusing to believe “alternative facts” by talking back out loud made us adept at naming and analyzing what was happening to us in the moment, without long reflection or academic permission. Practicing talking back is how we will find the language to describe that which we must resist, in words defined on our own terms.


  • Practice democracy locally so we don’t forget what it is. I don’t mean just voting or running for office, Whenever you are in a group making a decision, make the rules explicit so we all can play. This is what democracy looks like. Go to your town meeting, City Council hearing, condo association and see what it feels like to be part of making decisions that affect all of us, together. Remember that we learn the basics of democracy by the time we are six: the idea of everyone having a vote, of majority rule, of choosing the person we want to lead us or speak for us as a group, these are the rules of the playground. If we fail to practice the messy, trying basics of governing ourselves in everyday life, it will take only six years for our children to forget how this “self rule” thing was ever done.


  • Be an Underground Railroad. That means becoming willing to harbor fugitives and using what we have to make that possible. You might need to harbor fugitive people seeking respite or freedom from persecution. You may be called upon to harbor fugitive information about how to provide a safe abortion if health care becomes inaccessible or illegal. Connecting to others in a resilient network that transmits information, know-how and work that is real builds community and trust, those atoms of democratic liberty.To be part of this web of connection gives us a glimpse into a future where our  kinship with the folks who are most distant and most different from us  feels necessary to our own creativity and survival.


  • Be a maker. Learn what you can make or fix with your own hands. Do this for two reasons. The first is because nationalist isolationism breeds economic recession and shortages of consumer goods, so your know-how might come in handy. The second and more important reason is that we best understand democratic notions like participation, the public commons, reciprocity, and interdependence when we know them in material ways. Making things requires us to learn about the strength of our individual capacity and also what we cannot do alone. Making things requires engagement that’s more sustained than a computer petition click. So make a blouse or a dinner party or an old computer work again, learn to mend a bike. Then work with your neighbors to make a salt bucket for the icy part of your street, or an alternative way to solve neighborly disputes. Try on some democracy made by hand.


These may not be the forms of resistance that first come to your mind. And they do not exclude other kinds of political engagement, like these 10 actions  during the first 100 days of the Trump residency in the White House. But this I believe: we must practice naming what is happening to us for ourselves, and talk back about what we want instead. That self-governance is not an abstract value, it is an action that requires discipline and practice. That we resist every time we practice democracy, even in the humblest of places and simplest ways. We resist when we re-member the practices of freedom, even if we must rebuild them, re-craft them, knit them together from anger and memory, or pass them on in secret from hand to hand.

#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

Continue reading

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:


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.

%d bloggers like this: