Tag Archives: Social Justice

Tending to Social Justice as a Garden

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Community love takes patience, persistence, and long-term perspective

Despite pollen, I love spring. Our little house sits on a small yard, almost no grass. The rock-lined paths and mulched areas already overtaken by weeds, sprouting acorns, and creeping vines.

Today I decided to pull up what I can, and to not overdo. To pull out patience with the wheelbarrow: this work will take a while.

The less-than-glamorous task of weeding is a good metaphor to doing the work of love. Sounds strange: the work of love. Yet, love is work. Whether for a person or a group of people whose inequitable rights and welfare stir you to plant some seeds of action. First, prepare the ground.

If you’re just coming into social justice work or thinking about becoming more involved, these four points (grown from my own reality) may be helpful:

  • Expect to pull a lot of weeds and enjoy whatever’s blooming (or budding) in the present moment.

I’m involved in two small non-profits. Weeds of resistance (some community voices oppose the work we do) but also weeds of disorganization — and sometimes contention — within. Take time to celebrate what you are able to contribute and the small wins of your collective.

  • Sometimes, it’s overwhelming. Start somewhere.

Go to an event, a rally, a monthly meeting. And don’t think you don’t matter because you’re new to an organization or a cause. The best allies are are humble, yet brave enough to say, I’d like to help; what can I do?

  • Do something, even if it’s making name tags or bringing a friend to a second meeting.

Some weeks, I can only edit press releases and other social media posts. At other times, I can help lead events and trainings. You don’t have to prove your worthiness by overdoing.

  • Once you begin, you’ll notice how some things are not as hard as you thought, but usually they are more so.

Top reasons why people drop out of community love work is they burn out, they get discouraged (by lack of progress), or frustrated about dysfunction within the group they support.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

When you can only see the weeds, remember:

  • Take time for internal love work. Rest, recharge, and remind yourself that you are doing important work.
  • When discouraged, think of the movement as a tender child. Would you give up on your child, niece or friend? Did everyone give up on you when you were struggling? Love takes patience and trust.
  • When things aren’t working, speak up respectfully. After you’ve put in some time (I recommend a year at least) and built relationships, ask your leader if they would like your feedback. If not, perhaps you find another organization to support; if so:
  • Don’t only express the negatives. Highlight what you appreciate about their leadership and the progress that’s been made. Express that you, like them, want to be part of the solution.

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The Blur Between Being Friendly and Being a Friend

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Ellen’s coming out about George started something worth wrestling with

The word friend has become really fuzzy. Way before Ellen’s video about being friends with George W. Bush. Yet, strangely, all the social media backlash has brought two questions into focus:

  1. What is a friend versus being friendly?
  2. Must we be “aligned” with others’ beliefs and actions to be a friend?

The meaning of friend or friendship is about as amorphous as love. Especially since Facebook. Collecting “friends” has never been easier or dicier.

Clear definitions are important because language is about utility. So that we can better understand one another. The term friend has become about as useful as trying to change someone’s opinion with facts.

Initially, the Ellen clip struck me as a funny, timely Hallmark message. But of course, it’s not just any ‘ol conservative she befriended. It’s that guy who, in a different era or political climate, could have been tried as a war criminal.

Bush’s beliefs are irrelevant here; his actions are what matters. He was one of the most destructive presidents in modern American history; a man who has never been held to account for a long litany of crimes, misdeeds, and abuses of power committed during his two bloodstained terms in office. The reason “43” should be treated as a pariah is not because he is a Republican or a conservative, but because he caused the deaths of thousands of innocent people and tortured hundreds of others. — Medhi Hasan, The Intercept

I remember good ol’ George W, whom I’d never imagine referring to as good ‘ol if we didn’t have the current Oval Office occupant as a reference point. I remember where I was March 19, 2003, when the first Tomahawk missiles hit Iraq: Behind the wheel of my parked car in a faculty lot, tuned to WUNC, vaguely aware that I would need to stop crying before walking to class.

My Daughter’s Post

In the immediate wake of the Ellen video, my daughter posted an NPR story about Daryl Davis, an African American who befriended dozens of KKK members for over 30 years. She said she was a fan of speaking her mind to people she doesn’t agree with. (I can attest to that!) But that she also was a fan of surrounding herself with diverse people. “If we stay in our bubble, how can things change?”


Even though she’s in her 30s, it’s hard for me to read harsh comments on her wall. Actually, scratch that. The comments weren’t that harsh. (But my own slip into fragility here will help illustrate another point in a few paragraphs).

Ahem. Some opposing comments her “friends” wrote on her wall felt like something big was starting to rub up against my beliefs or values or ego. Maybe all three. Like a bit of friendly fire in my brain.

Comments went something like this (paraphrasing):

It’s a straw man to dismiss others’ feelings by calling for “kindness” when the root of their upset is forceful use of government to codify unkindness.

The left is always willing to listen. Those that need to listen are the right.

You insinuate that we should forget justified grievances in the name of showing kindness. Those grievances are because he wasn’t kind. He started a revolution in politics of unkindness; he is a symbol.

There are some a-holes on the left. But their anger is usually due to oppression. Your solution advocates appeasement… telling the oppressed to be nice to the oppressor and all will be good. And the oppressor says, Yeah, see, your leader says be nice to us… and then they go on to heighten the oppression.

Photo by June Intharoek from Pexels

Her responses:

Not advocating appeasement at all. Personal relationships can be a good foundation for having difficult conversations. That’s not appeasement. That’s healthy conflict.

Having a personal relationship with someone can make tough conversations a lot more fruitful.

The discussion wasn’t between Republicans and Democrats. But it quickly took on a win-lose vibe.

Kind of a Friend

So I’m meeting a kind-of-a-new-friend over coffee two days later. She asked me to meet her a week before, intimating that it had to do with her run for a local office next year. We’ve been Facebook friends for a year or more; we’re in a few local (political and social) groups. I assume she’s going to ask me to help with campaign communications, writing posts, that kind of thing.

The night before the meeting, I wrestle with a couple things:

1. While most of her posts are ones I agree with, and some I’m not sure about but they get me to think, a few are too much for me. The ones that call out white women as responsible for our social and political problems. I KNOW my gender and race are big parts of the problem but it feels like she’s trying to alienate, not educate, white women. Will this be an issue for me?

2. While her more inflammatory posts don’t put me off in terms of being friendly, being in the same book club (it’s called White Ladies Get Your Shit Together), and being a helpful neighbor, could I work for her campaign?

Could I canvas and convince constituents — mostly white in our district — that her comments about white women on social media are meant to hold us responsible, to get us to think about our bubbles, our silence, our privilege and our implicit biases?

Our coffee shop conversation begins with the Ellen/George thing, moves into my daughter’s post and the responses to it. I broach the blurriness of friendship in question form. What is it?

She talks about her senior year in high school when a debate teacher “had the audacity to tell me that I came across uppity. Basically I was a snob and none of my friends could tell me that.”

Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

So we talked about what friendship means — especially within the white girl lanes that we knew so well: validating everything about the other; being on guard not to hurt one another’s feelings, even when you knew they were wrong; putting yourself down to praise someone else; “protecting” fragile feelings.

We mused about the kind(s) of women we’d be if we’d been taught to be an honest friend to others and expected nothing less in return.

We talked about pathologies that stem from patriarchal culture, centuries of reinforced white fragility, fear of “other,” and the privilege of turning away from racial and poverty issues.

This new friend or person I’m friendly with doesn’t turn away. At all. We are in a town that is purple in a sea of red (major districts of Atlanta, withstanding).

For example, State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Cobb Co. Republican, was quoted this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Most of my neighbors want to be left alone and raise their kids. They’re not at the Capitol waving signs,” said Kirkpatrick, a surgeon. “Our party sometimes gets a little off when we let a few people make loud noises and hijack the whole thing.

It takes the constitution and commitment of the person I’m now friendly with to make the loud noises and say the things that are uncomfortable. Even when she paints white women with such a broad brush (sigh).

At the end of our exciting and extended meeting, she asked (surprisingly tentatively) if I’d be willing to host a neighborhood meet and greet for her next month.

I think she saw my half-second pause before I said “sure” as being less than sure. But I was simply surprised she didn’t ask me to do more.

She and I may never have a closer encounter than our two-hour meeting at the coffee shop, but the cool thing is I don’t have to put her into one of two categories: friendly or friends.

And as for the DeGeneres/Bush thing? I asked my kind-of-a-friend what she thought about people being capable of real change, “Yeah. Of course people change. We don’t do a good job taking that into account.”

I was glad to hear her say that. Not that I was seeking her approval or anything.

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Lorde Help Us

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Brandt Jean’s call for forgiveness set off a few alarms. We should listen.

Consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit.” — Audre Lorde

Brandt Jean, brother of 26-year-old Botham Jean who was shot dead in his own apartment, extended nothing less than amazing grace to the officer who killed his brother.

Jean not only forgave Amber Guyger. He expressed love for Guyger. And then he asked permission to embrace her, which he did a very long time.

It was astonishing and beautiful in its authenticity.

Yet, I couldn’t share it. Couldn’t like it, love it, be sad or angry about it.

There are no emoticons for moments that reveal our deepest, fullest humanity. Especially when our country has a history that continues to haunt us.

No need for a history lesson. We already have too many fresh reminders like Garner, Brown, Bland, Rice, Jean and many others to believe that the next death of an innocent black or brown citizen will end in justice: a sentence that is equally meted out, regardless of race.

But when a white defendant is remorseful, admits error, and is female, the handwriting on the courtroom wall becomes more convoluted. Before sentencing, it appeared to read: This verdict ain’t gonna satisfy nobody.

As I scrolled through my feed after Guyger’s sentence — accompanied by footage of Jean’s statement and the long embrace, followed by the judge hugging Guyger (which I still can’t wrap my head around) — I realized that this verdict would please a lot of people.

And that’s a problem.

Shouldn’t We Try a Little Tenderness?

Brandt Jean’s actions embodied the best of what is humanly possible. The problem is not his humanity.

“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” — Audre Lorde

The problem is that this miraculously tender moment gone viral encourages illusions that make us (especially white people) feel better. It sparks hope that if this can happen, things aren’t really all that bad and maybe they are getting better.

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted that “racism and white supremacist ideology can’t be ‘hugged out.’” The Rev. Michael W. Waters, Dallas pastor and activist, expressed deep concern about how acts of forgiveness (as were extended by members of the historically black Charleston church in 2015) “have been weaponized to thwart our work for justice in this nation.”

Brandt’s actions should not be mistaken as a feel-good indicator that our legacy of racism is fading or ending, that we don’t have to pay as much attention or work quite as hard to combat inequalities, or (gulp) that black people are becoming more tender toward their oppressors.

If we make that mistake, we are fools.

If we are vilify Guyger, we are fools.

If we take up for her, we are fools.

The False Dichotomies Between and Within Us

“I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.” — Audre Lorde

Photo by Julian Schröpel on Unsplash

None of us — within any race, ethnicity, or gender group — is alike. We nod in understanding the dangers of stereotyping, yet if we know two or three Indians or Israelis, for example, we’re tempted to generalize those people’s traits and behaviors to entire cultures.

Black Americans can be equally foreign to white people who say they have black friends, but most often have superficial exchanges or no relationships with them. In fact, most white Americans have no black friends. No wonder why so many Americans actually don’t see — as Lorde put it decades ago — others’ meaningful whole, as other aspects of them are ignored or denied.

This is why it’s so important not to see Brandt Jean only as a black Christian man. Yes, he’s a paragon of grace and agape.

But he’s not the black guy who “gets” white folk.

He’s not giving this country a pass.

He probably struggles with mercy and justice. Just like everyone.

Justice and Mercy

Not between groups, but within each individual exists our greatest differences. And each person is infinitely more complex than hundreds of assessments, surveys or even our autobiographies could possibly reveal about us.

Take the popular Myers-Briggs Temperament Sorter. One of its forced-choice questions is What do you value more: justice or mercy? I don’t like that question. My context-specific head wants to know: to whom and what situation, exactly, would this question apply? There is no box for it depends.

Photo by Clarissa Vannini from Pixabay

Mercy is compassion shown to someone who is powerless or to someone with no right or claim to receive kindness. And justice is guided by truth, reason, and fairness with the aim of being righteous, equitable, or moral.

Which is more important?

In a perfectly equal and equitable world, no one would need mercy and we’d be guided by justice that works for everyone.

But we do need mercy. Not only because our religion, ideology or spirit might urge us to. But because we don’t have justice for all.

Mercy is tenderness. And tenderness can be much harder to give than justice. Especially for people who rarely receive either. And particularly for people like Brandt Jean who offered mercy to someone who represents the power behind and within an unjust system.

Of course, I don’t know thoughts or emotions that Jean might have wrestled with before deciding to publicly forgive Guyger. It seems he would agree with Audre Lorde: that the risk was worth it.

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” — Audre Lorde

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Listening at the Intersection of Mercy and Justice

We are entrenched in the same systems of inequality, inequity, and political polarization. Because the systems affect us very differently, we must listen to one another. And especially when we don’t like or agree with what’s said, to remember:

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” — Audre Lorde

Speakers need listeners.

Last week, over 500 registered American voters were invited to spend a weekend outside Dallas to prove that there might be a better way to disagree. (Amazingly, as tension in Washington was building over the possible impeachment of the president, Trump’s name barely came up.)

Put a diverse group of people in a room…and they’re likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic… not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues. — The Upshot, New York Times

If you want to listen locally, Better Angels is an organization run by citizens that unites red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. My experience with a Better Angels workshop helped me understand several republicans’ views (and those views were surprisingly diverse). It also empowered me to ask questions about the whys behind those views.

Sometimes just asking questions creates space for people to question their own beliefs.

And all I knew was, the only thing I had was honesty and openness.” — Audre Lorde

We can choose to answer the call (and all the alarms) by speaking up. Even when we’re afraid. And we can listen to others who, like us, also get afraid.

Let’s not allow Brandt Jean’s words and gestures to be swallowed in the syrup of the internet, only to become a soon-forgotten meme. Or worse, provide maudlin evidence that all is well.

Audrey Lorde’s body of work is proof that we can stand strong for justice and keep our hearts tender.

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Intersectionality: It’s Going to Get Harder Before It Gets Better

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One muppet on the street taught us empathy; surely we can learn the crossroads

One of my first teachers of empathy was a young amphibian on Sesame Street, a vulnerable companion sharing his lonely greenness. Like millions of kids in 1969, I related to and felt my heart swell with love for a frog, especially after I heard him sing.

Kermit the Frog remains my spirit animal of empathy. Hard to believe he is now, like me, AARP-eligible. A lot has changed since 1969 thanks to Sesame Street, Julia, and The Mod Squad — among the first shows to cast women, African Americans and Latinx in leading, positive roles.

Although diverse representation seems slow to me (one step forward, several back) I’m heartened when I look at demographics in the House of Representatives. Identities have moved beyond a handful of races and binary genders. Identities now include multiple intersecting identities. A good thing, yet reaching agreement is only going to get harder.

Even within the social justice space — a space culturally suited to more listening and less hostility than Congress — it’s getting harder. We hear more voices (again, a good thing) but it can be harder to fully listen, to take the time to reflect and to reach agreement without giving in to the same divisions we are trying to bridge.

I’m not specifically talking about white women coopting feminism. Although that’s definitely part of it. In a larger frame, it has to do with legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality: that individuals may experience multiple forms of prejudice simultaneously.

It’s the reason writers like Jennifer Kim advocate continual introspection, curiosity, and compassion to recognize troublesome statements and attitudes like these:

“I’m a woman so I show up to all the women’s events, but it’s not my place to be an ally to people of color.” Or, “As a member of a racial minority group, I’m extremely aware of the systemic oppression against my people in this country, but LGBTQ+ don’t deserve the same rights as I do because of [some faulty logic].”

Up Close and Personal

Twenty years ago, Sakina trained me to co-facilitate Ethnic and Race Study Circles in Raleigh, NC. After three years of working with Sakina in communities, schools, and local governments, she and I were offered contracts with the NC Episcopal Diocese and two corporations that wanted to move beyond Diversity 101 and build more inclusive cultures.

Sakina is now the top diversity officer at a large university system. She and I live 1000 miles apart instead of 10, but we try to catch up every few months. Two hour phone calls. Last month’s call happened around 2 p.m. on a weekday because Sakina had taken a mental health day.

She was dealing with a lot more than bureaucratic stalls and stops, power plays and politics. More than a refrain of our familiar convos about next career steps and “isn’t it time we make our podcast idea a thing?” This time it was a problem within her own department.

Specifically, push-back from the only white woman (let’s not call her Becky, but Brenna) who reports to Sakina. Brenna is director of the LGBTQ center. Several weeks ago, Sakina heard from several student and faculty allies who felt ‘scolded’ by Brenna.

“I’ve heard her (Brenna) jump on people about pronoun usage, especially after Toni (who is trans), was hired as her assistant. I mean, damn, I’m the first to want to know if I’m not being inclusive but there’s a way to do that. We can’t be turning people off who want to learn and support.”

After Sakina privately relayed her concerns to Brenna and offered coaching support, Brenna dismissed Sakina’s feedback. Brenna also went directly to Sakina’s boss, a VP, to file a complaint about receiving a 2%, instead of (the maximum) 2.5%, merit increase.

She Said, She Said

Of course my empathy lies with Sakina. She’s bright, collaborative and compassionate AF. Yes, I’m biased. And I’m aware (as I was that afternoon) that I can easily chalk up Brenna as another white female who can’t accept and back a Black female leader.

Maybe this is true; maybe it’s not. Perhaps Brenna is an entitled, neurotic mess — regardless of her boss’s race. Perhaps Brenna is only a warrior for non cis-gendered people and she can’t see the social justice forest for the trees.

All I know is that it’s going to get harder. But that’s gotta be okay. Slow progress or status quo? I’ll take the slow road. And try to remember that conflict is the harbinger of change.

Math as Metaphor

I think of set theory as a metaphor for shared social identities. People as circles intersecting to various degrees depending on their common identities, traits, and experiences.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Let’s take Sakina’s and Brenna’s imagined commonalities. Their shared identities, traits and experiences show up as light beige-colored, eclipse-shaped overlap (pictured on left).

Sakina and Brenna surely value social justice (in general); they grew up female, have two degrees, and share a common nationality and organizational membership, for starters.

What does this mean, if anything? Do Brenna’s “issues” with Sakina exist because they don’t share enough common identity, like race or sex?

I don’t think so. First, to assume that shared identities equal a conflict-free zone is about as likely as the absence of dysfunction in families. Second, intersected (overlapping) circles illustrate that we can have any number of common identities — AND within those identities is more diversity, nuance, and sometimes very different meanings.

Intersectionality is different from intersecting identities. It’s about how those with the same identity experience their diversity. We can only try to understand, to empathize with each another’s greenness or frogness. Crenshaw’s one-minute explanation is well worth watching:

It’s hard work. And easy to understand why managers (of all identities) wish to hire those with similar identities, traits, and experiences. But this runs counter to reality: the world is increasingly diverse, regardless of our place in it. Equally important, hiring for homogeneity is antithetical to any kind of diversity— especially if you want an inclusive, engaged culture.

Math Has Its Limits

Photo by Nilotpal Sarma on Unsplash

Let’s suppose that Sakina’s and Brenna’s circles are almost totally eclipsed. Their circles significantly overlap — almost like twins. Looking at identity and intersectionality through the lens of set theory doesn’t account for infinite ways in which Sakina or Brenna might “see” or have experienced their identities, traits, and life in general.

Even if Brenna were Black and born to two professors (Sakina’s experience), she may have still pushed back on Sakina’s feedback; she might have tread the same path to the VP, instead of having a conversation with her manager. Everything could have happened, just as it did, based on neurology, chemistry, personality, and other idiosyncrasies.

Regardless of shared identities, no two people will see the world and their place in it similarly.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Being woke about intersectionality is not just a mindset. It requires disciplined responsibility to have richer, more thoughtful conversations and to create more nuanced possibilities. This usually translates into more time-consuming work. At least in the short-term. Over time, though, trust engenders more candor. Collaboration becomes an easier, more efficient way of working.

It’s Not Easy Being Human

I’d love to tell you that Sakina’s problems with Brenna are over. That through my friend’s continued efforts at trust-building and empathy, Brenna was able to accept Sakina’s coaching. That Brenna is trying to change her approach with allies. That Brenna is taking responsibility.

I don’t know. But I’m learning it’s a sign of progress to be challenged, to hear push-back from others, especially those who work with me in the social justice space. It’s not personal and yet it is. I’m part of the work; my role is important. But, I don’t need to take challenges or criticisms personally. Especially as a white cis-gendered woman it’s essential that I take time to listen. To learn the crossroads. To get better.

Special thanks to my friend and colleague Sakina. I am because you are.

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Getting Ourselves Back to the Garden

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even if we missed it the first time

I’d love to tell you I was at Yasgur’s Farm in August 1969, but I was 10, surrounded by soybeans and corn in downstate Illinois. Ten years later, my future husband would introduce me to Woodstock’s creative tillers: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Hendrix, Joplin, Mountain, Cocker, Country Joe & The Fish.

Among the famous festival’s absentees were The Beatles, Zeppelin, The Doors, and Dylan. But the most notable of all was Joni Mitchell. Precisely because she wasn’t there, Mitchell composed Woodstock.

Mitchell’s manager thought it more prudent she keep her booking on The Dick Cavett Show. So Mitchell wrote Woodstock in a hotel room, based on what she’d heard from her boyfriend Graham Nash and what she could glean from televised reports. Decades later David Crosby said that Mitchell captured the feeling and importance of the festival better than anyone who had actually been there.

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

Photo by Pixabay

Realities of No Return

Ever have the feeling you were born too early or too late to fully soak in the zeitgeist of an era? I was born a little too late for the Sixties. A shoot popping up in a field of wildflowers just before the frost. A would-be Woodstock kid transplanted in the middle of the country.

Just as I began to grasp the music and message of Woodstock, the Seventies were winding down. Reaganomics would usher in a new dawn most unlike Grace Slick’s meaning. While I acquiesced to the cultural changes of the Eighties, I felt I had missed a golden age, one that celebrated peace, less conformity and consumerism, and a currency of kindness that made sense.

But every golden age is fraught with plating, at best. As a white girl, I acknowledged the tragedy of race and anti-war riots that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands injured and homeless. From 1964 to 1971 alone, more than 750 race-related riots were documented. As one historian put it, “there was so much racial tension in the air in the 1960’s that a riot could happen almost anywhere, anytime.” And, of course, the tarnish that was Vietnam.

I’d like to think that my idyllic garden wasn’t sullied by privilege. But of course it was. I could choose to keep Woodstock and peace and love somehow untainted by reality. But in 1979, inflation and interest rates had climbed well into double-digits. The white co-ed would soon have to make a living, pay back all those loans. A protracted recession and a zealous young Republican (played by Michael J. Fox) on Family Ties were on the way to remind us that every speck of stardust has its price.

It wasn’t until the early Nineties, when I first moved to Athens, Georgia, that I felt close to “the garden,” one that included more humility. Sure, the Classic City’s enchantment had something to do with the music scene (REM, B-52s, Widespread Panic), but I also got the sense that this place had decided to stop the clock somewhere between Nixon’s first and Carter’s only term.

I’d arrived to get a PhD, and the University of Georgia just happened to be geographically situated in this countercultural mecca. I joined a female empowerment group called Spiral Dynamics and became friends with poets, crafters, lesbians and vegans. We discussed Sister Outsider. It was my garden.

Photo by Sebastian Kanczok on Upsplash

A woman who reminded me of Joan Baez cut my hair at the Dream Catcher on Jackson Street. Ellen is now my therapist, but I suppose she was then, as well. I think it was she (or another stylist) who’d read something on ley lines: “Sort of like invisible chakras of the earth’s energy.” Athens was, ostensibly, where many of those energy lines intersected.

Leaving the Garden

Toward the end of 1995, I remarried and moved to a remote country called Nebraska. The idea was to write a stunning dissertation proposal and collect data that first ABD year. Instead I paid the price of leaving academia before my committee gave me their blessing. I’d underestimated politics and my naivete: my first proposal failed. I was also advised that doing “diversity research” was like shooting myself in the foot. I hobbled back to Nebraska.

I missed my garden. Over a landline, I exchanged laments with Sally, a close friend I’d made in Athens. Her salt-of-earth response, “Of course I miss it. But we can never go back.” Sally had remarried her ex-husband (after several years of divorce), so she knew something about the folly of nostalgia.

Sally was right. After a 20-year separation from the garden, I returned to love Athens. But, like me, it had changed. As Frost put it: Nothing gold can stay.

Thinking Green, Instead

Just because we can’t go back to what was shouldn’t stop us from pursuing what could be. Maybe gold can’t stay. Maybe that’s a groovy thing and we’re just too fixated on what we believe we must have to be happy. But we don’t know what we haven’t experienced. So, here’s how I’m trying to look beyond the old gold:

The garden’s a big place; choose a place to tend

Four years ago, I moved back with a plan to equally cultivate my teaching and community outreach roles until I retired from the same college that awarded my PhD. After three years, I realized I’d been searching for a plot that didn’t exist.

Instead of looking at my return as a failed experiment — a search for gold gone bust — I realized the part I loved most about my faculty job was working with nonprofits to develop service-learning opportunities for my leadership students. I also took some time to birth 14 Words for Love, a social justice-focused writing initiative to reclaim a hate motto shared by white supremacists.

Photo by Jodi Barnes

For a city as small as Athens, we citizens are lucky on many counts. Music now includes a growing hip-hop scene that’s getting deserved buzz. We still have great local bars, restaurants, and coffee houses. Donation-based yoga. A regional startup hub. An eclectic business collective called Athensmade. Festivals like AthFest, Human Rights Festival, and Wild Rumpus bring people together from around the country and beyond.

But it’s tough to sustain yourself here. Over one-third of Athenians live in poverty (some figures are as high as 40 percent). That’s over 2.5 times the national poverty rate.

To put a finer point on it, plots aren’t equally allocated among us celestials. They never have been, from Eden to Woodstock.

I look for the intersection between what I love, where I have some skills, and what breaks my heart. And there’s so much to tend within that single intersection. Millions of acres in need of 21st century aerials, more equitable plats, seed monies and sustainable irrigation systems. Hundreds of nonprofits and incredibly talented and passionate people are here, many home-grown, to tend these needs.

Photo by Red and Black staff, used with permission

Start planting seeds to restore your best self

One of my plots this year includes non-violent communication and restorative practices within a big field called restorative justice (RJ). RJ is about restoring people to their best selves. A place many of us have never experienced. We’re used to retribution. Rules simply rule. A kid curses out a teacher: suspended. U.S. schools generally show zero tolerance for disruptive behavior. The results impact black students especially hard.

RJ focuses on relationships. How does someone who’s harmed another person repair what’s been done? How can we listen for underlying unmet needs and support each other for more accountability? Restorative practices are the ways we can help students, their parents, our teachers, and school staff to listen, learn and support one another’s humanity. (For a good read on restorative justice in schools, Jennifer Gonzalez rocks it as part of her Cult of Pedagogy.)

Find Master Gardeners to Keep Learning and Loving

Last week, I got the opportunity to take a workshop with Charles Curtis, psychologist and RJ coordinator at Ron Brown College Preparatory High in D.C. I remembered hearing about Ron Brown and its focus on restorative practices on NPR. Dr. Curtis introduced himself, unabashedly, as “a lover.”

Love grows in the Ron Brown College Preparatory garden. Love, in deed, is the garden. Simply, Curtis and the CARE team at Ron Brown actively love each student every single day, without giving up. Like this:

“We’re at your house, we’re in your face, we’re in your business, we’re caring about you, we’re at your mama’s funeral, in class when you’re struggling.” — Charles Curtis, PhD

and this from his colleague:

“I tell the guys all the time, ‘You’re going to get love, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.’ … They’re like, ‘Is this real? Why don’t y’all suspend me?’ And I think that blows their minds. ‘Why y’all won’t send me home?!’ ’Cause we can just talk about it, and y’all be fine.” — Dawaine Cosey, CARE Team member

Billion Year Old Carbon

One of my dearest friends owns a bunch of gardens and acres of living art at the Rensing Center, about 90 miles north of Athens. Orchestric waterfalls play behind brilliant yellow-orange chanterelles on lush 3-D canvases. Her artist residency program requires several houses for modern human habitation. And shit breaks at the least convenient or affordable times. She keeps going off something like remembering her identity. Family ties with the cosmos. A bone-deep belief that we are all stewards of the garden. We can restore both Eden lost and found. We can build new Edens.

All of this fits in my garden. Every once in awhile, I begin to research ley lines. And then I realize, I don’t need to know why I’m here.

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Wanna Be a Good Ally? It Has Nothing And Everything To Do With You

Photo by Cristi Tohatan on Unsplash

Allies have had some bad press. More than five years ago, Black Girl Dangerous Mia McKenzie wrote that she was over the term ally, ‘the constant cookie-seeking of people who just can’t do the right thing unless they are sure they’re gonna get some kind of credit for it.’

I saw glimpses of cookie-seeking among a few of my university leadership students, who were mostly white, during their multi-semester service-learning projects. But most were happy to invest two or three times the number of hours for the relative crumbs of credit hours they received.

The bigger cookie-seeking piece was more evident on social media. Something I’d consider optics, given the service-learning teams who stretched themselves the least tended to post the most. McKenzie and Mychal Denzel Smith (among others) describe this kind of behavior as making sure everyone knows they are an ally to a movement, whether they’re actually doing anything required of them or not.

More often than not, they’re just seeking credit for being a good person…It becomes self-congratulatory, centers their experience at the expense of the marginalized, and, as McKenzie points out, reinforces oppressive behaviors that their “ally” work is supposed to be ending. — Mychal Denzel Smith

Given the need for allies — those who help support a movement they believe in but aren’t directly impacted by — we need to think about what qualities make for an effective ally. Both ally and the social justice organization(s) they represent deserve more substantial sustenance.

The Case for “Fit”

Before diversity became a buzzword, I was learning the statistical and legal foundations of good recruitment and selection. Finding good matches between humans and jobs with a focus on fairness and equality is important work — important for individuals, coworkers and companies, alike.

The importance of person-job fit isn’t restricted to paid work. Everything we do with others includes a fit between needs — the daily dance of accommodation to get our needs met. With that in mind, I’ll make the case that being an effective ally requires all the preparation, practice, and introspection one needs when applying for a paid position. Perhaps more.

Not everyone who wants to be an ally should be one. While equal as humans, we are not equal in our abilities to do good social justice work. This is true for many allies who often work at the grass roots level as volunteers. And it is especially true for allies who thrive on optics.

The exclusivity I’m advocating dovetails with good job selection practices but runs somewhat counter to being inclusive — a bit ironical given the social justice context. Being selective about one’s allies is not the way we typically think about offers to help. If I want to volunteer at a soup kitchen or the humane society, I can probably stock shelves or scoop cat litter five days a week with no knowledge of human or feline homelessness rates, and with no specific skills.

Social justice work is vastly different. Social justice leaders who seek help or to fill unpaid positions — volunteers, allies, or advocates — should be choosy and select and on the basis of knowledge, skills and other personal attributes, as they do any paid position.

But the bigger responsibility is on the ally.

Example: You are white and want to get involved in local race relations and anti-discrimination work. You’ve a genuine desire to serve — a fine place to begin. After you attend the first informational meeting of a social justice organization (and you’re fired up about what you might do), you pause. In addition to class or work schedule considerations, you take some time to reflect on your knowledge, skills and the experience you can offer. You also consider your temperament and your motivations for allyship.

It’s not a question of being a good enough person; but rather a question of possessing the knowledge, skills and attributes that can effectively serve the community.


You don’t need a degree to understand America’s myriad issues that disproportionately affect people of color: mass incarceration, school-to-prison-pipeline, intergenerational poverty, lack of decent, affordable housing, and police shootings (to name a few).

The goal is not to be seen as smart but to be an informed citizen. Increasing your knowledge requires some time and effort. Understanding different forms of racism and how these are baked into our institutions and systems can be difficult and emotional work. Once you know them, you can’t unknow them. You start looking at things like cash bail and access to milk and vegetables differently.

Although building knowledge takes time, it’s relatively easy to acquire. For starters, read or listen to The Color of Money, The New Jim Crow, White Fragility, Women, Race, and Class, and Between the World and Me.

Understanding historic and current racial issues is a baseline. Just as important is knowing some history of local issues from the perspective of citizens you might serve. Few allies (and whites in general) take the time to learn about work that has been done for decades in Black and Latinx communities. Knowing community history honors the community’s work and instills some humility that allies need to be effective.

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Deceptively “Soft” Skills are the Hardest to Hone

Whether learned behaviors (skills) or abilities we were born with, we come with tools in our toolbox. Whether your skills are mostly rudimentary or developed, they can always be honed. The most important ones are related to communication.

Most Black communities have had their share of white folks asking questions and offering to help. Whether partnering on a grant, gathering data for a study, or doing community service, the help ends. The partner leaves. To be re-told a community’s history, their needs and issues, allies need communication skills that earnestly engage (not try to dazzle).

Don’t ask people of color to educate you about racism (see Knowledge, above). Educate yourself and don’t imagine that any person of color can help you manage your discomfort or horror resulting from that knowledge. They know. They’ve been uncomfortable a lot longer than you.

Two vital engagement skills are active listening and not interrupting. If you don’t already possess it, you want to develop the ability to focus on the message and not get distracted by whether you are being liked or appreciated.

You should apply these same engagement skills in conversations with program directors and other members of the social justice organization. It’s simply hard to learn when you’re talking.

Allies need to meet others where they are, be up front about what they don’t know, why they are asking, share information about themselves, and begin to build relationships that won’t abruptly end after getting the story (or the data). As McKenzie says, [Being an ally] is an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

Personal Attributes

Everybody has a personality. A personality, once thought fixed, can change over time and with intentional practice. For example, “over-reacting” to stressors can improve with meditation, mindfulness, yoga, better nutrition and proper sleep. Some personality traits can enhance an ally’s effectiveness while some can impede it. While an ideal ally “profile” doesn’t exist, extensive research on the Big Five can help you make reasonable inferences.

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Conscientiousness: You want to develop and demonstrate conscientiousness. Do you always do what you commit to do? Or does it depend on the cookie-credit? Take your job as an ally seriously. Work hard and deliver what you promise and on time. Not following through with good work tells others that you don’t value the work or their time.

Openness to new experiences: As an aspiring ally, you’re probably pretty open to new experiences, as those who score highly tend to be more socially liberal. That doesn’t mean you’ll be effective in your role. It does mean that you’re probably not put off by complex issues and that you like variety.

Whether it’s a fresh idea like restorative practices in schools or a different approach to an old PR problem like inviting the new police chief to every board meeting, being open to and supportive of different ideas and processes can enhance your effectiveness. Openness certainly won’t hinder your work unless you become distracted by too many ideas and possibilities at the expense of doing and delivering (conscientiousness).

Openness also has a collaborative aspect. When we are open to others’ ideas and ways of doing things, we are less likely perceived as the outsider know-it-all.

Extraversion: There’s no evidence that being extroverted versus introverted makes for a better ally. Given that an effective ally is not one who takes the spotlight but listens well and contributes when they have something of value, extroverts and introverts and ambiverts could be equally effective.

Neuroticism: This personality dimension includes tendencies to be anxious, hostile, depressed, self-conscious, and panicky. Obviously, these traits can compromise your effectiveness. Low scores (preferable) on this dimension are calmness and emotional stability — not overreacting when presented with stressors. As mentioned, people can change this aspect of their personality over time with practice.

In White Fragility, DiAngelo talks about how an ally’s emotional displays or “white tears” take the focus off victims of racism and onto them. Not only are white tears a symbol of displaced pain and suffering, but those who shed them (mostly women) force people of color to drink from the firehose of their feelings about it.

I shed many white tears during a social justice circle debrief after visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (National Lynching Memorial) last summer. I mention this to show that with 20 years of social justice work, I became a textbook version of white tears. We’ll always make mistakes. When we do, it’s an opportunity to reflect and incorporate what we are learning.

Agreeableness: Like openness to experience, effective allies are apt to score moderately highly on agreeableness which includes tolerance, altruism, being straightforward (honest), and tender-minded or sympathetic. If you are low on these traits, you might consider asking to serve in a role that involves data or writing, instead of one with a relationship focus. At least initially.

Beyond Personality: Culture and Beliefs

Before I read White Fragility, I’d done research on racial and ethnic values in the workplace which supports the claim that American caucasians value individuality over any social group (including family). According to DiAngelo, two things impede white people’s beliefs and their accountability for racism.

First, they believe in the primacy of individuality over social groups. Whites are acculturated to believe that individual character is more influential than affiliation or identity with any social group. Therefore (unless you’re in the Ku Klux Klan, maybe) racism is caused by individuals and not groups. “It’s simply not my problem” is what the average white person might think.

The other obstacle is objectivity. If having a perspective or an opinion of racism is biased — just like every other individual opinion — then why examine it? What’s the point? Especially when you could be criticized, misinterpreted, and especially shamed. Why would anyone invite that?

Photo by 🐣 Luca Iaconelli 🦊 on Unsplash

If you’re a white ally with some experience, you’ve probably embraced race problems as your own, but may have more concerns sharing your views on racism with people of color. And that’s ok. Not everyone needs to know what you think. Plus, your perspective will continue to change as you do the work. On the other hand, don’t be afraid. Be thoughtful but be vulnerable.

The closer you get to being an effective, trusted ally, you will never be perfect. But that’s not the goal. People (of any race) may label something you do or say as “racist,” evoking an image of a hateful, immoral person. DiAngelo points out that when white people are told they’re being racist for saying, “you people” or using micro-aggressions, they disagree — some are shocked! — because they don’t see themselves as hateful or immoral.

I agree with DiAngelo: most of us are neither hateful nor immoral. Yet we unwittingly play a part in perpetuating racism by not understanding (or copping to) what racism means. To refuse to understand, to learn and grow is simply a lazy, fixed mindset. It’s looking at life through a dark lens of a fear-based, worst-case analysis. If I put myself “out there” to learn about racism, what will I get in return besides feeling shitty? Or being shamed?

The Real Returns of Putting Yourself Out There as an Effective Ally

Effective allies, white or otherwise, only gain in knowledge, wisdom, skills, personal and social transformation when we stop thinking about what we look like and focus on seeing and then serving our communities. Here are three mantras that may be helpful:

Get busy. Show up to social justice events and listen. Volunteer to help with mailings or to usher events. Don’t expect the red carpet. Forget your expectations (I’m going to be embraced, appreciated; I’m going to feel good about myself and help these people). Just show up and keep showing up. After a few events or meetings, others will get the sense that you’re reliable. You will then be worth investing in. People of color should be choosy before they consider someone an ally.

Get braver. Just like singing in public, getting your poetry rejected, or falling off a bicycle, the more you engage with other races and ethnicities, the more comfortable you become with yourself and the less you think they may be judging you. Don’t restrict your experiences to the annual International Fair or Black History Month. Initiate a new conversation, go out with people outside your circle every few weeks. Without vulnerability, without asking and offering and DOING and debriefing together, we can all post Dr. King quotes on January 15 and feel good about our non-racist selves.

Get humble.

Think about the circumstances we all share at birth. Completely dependent, unable to survive on our own. We chose nothing about the babies we were.

I didn’t choose to be Caucasian, nor did I choose where and how my ancestors migrated, the place of my birth, or my DNA. So how could I see my whiteness or culture or familial customs as good or bad? How could I expect any more or any less from others?

What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure. — Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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