Fear and Justice, in honor of Dr. King

Fear and justice make strange bedfellows, and yet you never seem to find one without the other. In the darkest nights of fear is when justice is most needed. Martin Luther King Jr. knew the darkness of fear. In a sermon he title “Antidotes to Fear” he listed all of the fears people were facing in the 1960s. Fear of bad health. Fear of losing money. Fear of war. Fear of the atomic age, which “lifted the fear of death to morbid proportions.” Not too different from today, huh?

Fear is a creative force

And yet in this same sermon Dr. King said, “fear is a powerfully creative force.” The fear of darkness led man to discover the secret of electricity. The fear of pain led to the marvelous advances in medical science. The fear of ignorance is why colleges and Universities were built. Dr. King said, “if man were to lose his capacity to fear, he would be deprived of his capacity to grow.”

Dr. King looked fear in the face every day. In 1956, ten years into his fight for civil rights, his home was bombed while his wife and infant daughter were there. That same day he addressed a fearful and angry crowd gathered on his lawn and pled for nonviolence. His fear drove his powerful sense of justice. He said, “our problem is not to get rid of fear, but rather to harness and master it … we must unflinchingly face our fears and honestly ask ourselves why we are afraid. This confrontation will … grant us power.” But afterward, he retreated.

He said, “I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear-stricken.” A woman name Mother Pollard from his congregation and a dedicated participant in the Montgomery bus boycott noticed. She said, “Something is wrong with you. You didn’t talk strong tonight. I told you we are with you all the way. But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.” For the next difficult 12 years until his death, Dr. King said, “the eloquently simple words of Mother Pollard came back again and again to give light and peace and guidance to my troubled soul. ‘God’s gonna take care of you.’”

There is no fear in love

Sometimes we forget that while Dr. King was a visionary and an academic, he saw himself first and foremost as a pastor, a man of God. While he quoted Aristotle, Plato and Thoreau in his sermons, he came back to the courage and love found within Christian faith to overcome his fear. He lived at the intersection of faith and intellect. Dr. King’s conclusion to his sermon, “Antidotes to Fear” was 1 John 4:18 – “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear … The one who fears has not been perfected in love.”

What fears, like Dr. King, are you holding onto today? And what will you do with those fears? Will you allow your fear to drive you to grow, create and invent? Or will you allow your fear to drive you into deeper darkness and despair? If you believe that “God’s gonna take care of you” what fears are you able to put in God’s hands?

Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation.” In other words, we must look fear in the face and offer it love in return.

We need more people who do not succumb to the dark side of fear, but instead ask themselves the difficult questions. 

Today there is much room for fear. If you feel a familiar fear bubbling up, I invite you now to meet it with love. Tell that fear, “God’s gonna take care of you.”

This was originally written by K.T. Sancken as a speech given at Valparaiso University’s 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

A prayer for the first day of virtual schooling

 
 
God bless my six-year-old’s 1st grade teacher, who laminated Zoom icons, held them up to the camera and repeated no less that 30 times today, “this is what the mute button looks like! Make sure you use it!” May she get peace and quiet at home tonight.
 
God bless the dad who didn’t know his son wasn’t on mute and said, “pay attention, boy! This learning ain’t for me!” I feel you.
 
God bless the kid who during music class, when the teacher was singing Irish ballads and teaching the steps to the Virginia Reel, said (not on mute), “What kinda music is this? This is whack!” May he listen to music he loves tonight.
 
God bless the music teacher who nodded and said, “I like these songs. I worked hard on them.” May someone in his family appreciate his guitar ballads.
 
God bless the mom who logged in as herself when her first grader decided to protest online school and who testified in accented English, “I am here, I am mother. She is in room, learning and crying.” May her dedication to her children’s education be a guiding light for us all.
 
God bless us all, everyone. May tomorrow be better.
 
Amen.

100 Years, and So Many More to Go

I woke up this morning and said to my 10-year-old daughter, “100 years ago today, white women received the right to vote.” 

She said, “Just white women?”

“Yes, just white women,” I said.  “It took until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to guarantee that people of color could vote.”

I write this on the anniversary of women’s suffrage directly to my fellow white women. It’s important for us to remember that for hundreds of years the only thing keeping us from the ballot box was lies built up by men in power. 

The Power of Lies

Some lies were absurd.  Pastors asked, “If we give to woman the ballot, shall the equality which woman lost, when she ate of the forbidden fruit, be restored, and shall she be made again the equal of man?”  This, an abomination.  Academics, doctors, scientists, and politicians testified that women shouldn’t vote because mental exertion could jeopardize reproductive health.  Postcards were sent around the world saying, “Girls are doing all the fellows’ jobs now!” implying that women’s suffrage would led to a world of lesbians and single men.

But, some of the lies were so pervasive that many of us still believe them today. Here’s one you might see on Pinterest. A mother’s influence is most needed in the home, not in the street protesting for rights or running for office.  “Real” mothers and “real” homemakers don’t want to vote or have positions of power.  They are humble and content with their main sphere of influence being their children.  What mother today doesn’t buy into this, even a little bit? I would be lying if I haven’t felt guilty for spending an evening writing postcards to my representatives instead of being with my children.

And yet, none of those lies matter.  What matters is that the United States is a country built on a government of the people, by the people and for the people.  And, women are people.

Listen to the Greater Truth

If you’ve seen Ironed Jawed Angels or Suffragette, you know that women who fought for the right to be recognized as people were punished for it.  Police attacked them.  They were jailed.  They were tortured.

This is why I write this to white women.  We were oppressed.  As people who were oppressed, we should understand oppression.  It’s sly.  It’s foundations are built on self-doubt, the kind of self-doubt that believes the small lies instead of the greater truth. These lies say things like, “well, if she had just listened to the police, she would be fine.” Or, “he was a thug, he deserved it.”  These are not only lies, but, they ignore the greater truth that people deserve equal treatment simply because they are people.

Black people are once again fighting for the right to be seen as people, people who don’t deserve to die because of a traffic violation or a counterfeit $20 bill.  And, they are being punished for speaking out for their own equality.  Why? Not because they deserve it, but because that’s how oppression works.

Keep Working for Equality

White women have gained equality to men in many ways – from the jobs we can choose to having a white woman on the Presidential ballot.  But our liberation is not to be celebrated without recognizing that oppression still exists.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “no one is free until we are all free.” As a country built of the people, by the people and for the people, our freedom is bound up in in the freedom of all people.

Thus, there is no “Women’s Equality Day” until there is true equality. We’re not there yet.

An Open Letter from Charlottesville to Minneapolis

Dear Minneapolis,

I write to you from Charlottesville.  My heart is breaking for you. In my 20s, in the first years of my marriage, your Southside was my neighborhood.  I lived at 28th and Cedar, on the bus line that took my husband and I to and from the University of Minnesota campus for our graduate studies.  The Wendy’s behind the Autozone, burned down by protesters, is the same Wendy’s I went to with pregnancy French fry cravings a decade ago.  The Target on Lake Street with the now viral video of its looting was where I bought my daughter’s first diapers after we brought her home from the hospital.  You were the womb that held me when I first became a wife and a mother.

I’ve called Charlottesville home for the last decade.  The parallels between what I see happening in Minneapolis and what I saw here in Charlottesville three years ago are uncanny.  This week I’ve kept vigil with Minneapolis, often until 2 or 3 in the morning trying to get my hands on whatever live feeds I can.  Everything is so creepily similar to what happened here, but on a much larger scale.  The white guys marching with guns or driving around in souped up cars, the shock of violence in places that were once safe havens, and the inconsistent behavior of the police. It’s all the same.

As protests spark around the country, growing bigger by the moment, I don’t have anything to say about the obvious evils of white supremacy that have occurred in both cities.  I don’t have any magic book or special documentary series to offer to help understand the history of both events.  Even as a social worker, I’m not going to offer any social-emotional tips on how to deal with the stress of it all.  There is plenty to be found about those things elsewhere.

Rather, I’m here to warn you of what’s to come.

I’m here to give you a road map into uncharted territory.

I’m here to prepare you.

But most of all, I’m here to say, “take care of yourself.”

BEAR WITNESS

My best wisdom is to hold on to the experiences you’ve had this week, remember their terrifying truth and bear witness to them. Especially those of you who live in the most heavily affected areas, Phillips, Powderhorn, Midtown and Longfellow neighborhoods. Tell the stories of what you saw.  Tell them to whomever will listen.  Post them on social media. Make them known.

After Charlottesville there were many people – including members of my own family – who said the Charlottesville rallies never happened, or the main stream media blew it out of proportion, or that all the counter protesters were thugs and radicals, rather than regular people trying to defend our city – like Heather Heyer was.

But you know otherwise. You know what you saw. You know the people in the TV footage are your neighbors, not people hired by George Soros or any other right wing conspiracy theory that will take hold in the coming weeks. This week changed everything.  It changed who you are, it changed where you live, it changed our nation. Hold on to that, and stand with your city. Bear witness to this pain and lament out loud.

CREATE A COLLECTIVE STORY

In the weeks and months after the rallies in Charlottesville, when the news outlets moved onto the next hot story, the donations to our Black led non-profits dwindled, and the cards and letters of support stopped coming – that’s when the real work started.

Collective trauma can be transformative, or it can be divisive depending on whether or not those affected can agree on a common story.  Charlottesville struggled to define this common story, but Minneapolis doesn’t have to. The first city council meeting after the rallies was filled with angry citizens screaming and demanding to know why they weren’t protected by the police.  School board meetings broke out into fist fights and arrests over whether or not to create a policy prohibiting confederate flags to be worn on clothing. Any time new people met, there was a quiet sizing up, with the ultimate litmus test being a casual mention of the Confederate statues to see where the other stood.  And people stood EVERYWHERE.  There were as many opinions on the rallies and the statues as there were people in our small town. No one could agree on what happened or how we could prevent it from happening again.  Even within groups that seemed unified from the outside, like anniversary events, there were divisions.

I remember at one point another social worker saying to me, “There is no behavioral norming anymore.  We can’t look to those around us to determine what is normal behavior.  We must dig down deep into our values and decide how to live, even when no one else around us is living that way.”  And though it sounds easy on paper, this is indeed terrifyingly difficult.  We are social animals who have evolved over thousands of years to behave in ways that our peers find acceptable.  When we don’t know what those around us think is normal, it causes an existential panic.  Racism should not be normal.  If Minneapolis can create a collective story that normalizes anti-racist behavior, the process of healing from the collective trauma of this week will be easier. 

AVOID BURN OUT

Constantly thinking about your values, and deciding how to live often leads to tough decisions to change your behavior or showing up in situations where you’re uncomfortable or even scared.  While it’s the right thing to do, it’s also exhausting.  When it’s done at a pace as fast as many activists in Charlottesville were demanding, it’s unsustainable.  At least in Charlottesville, it seems that the biggest threat to racial reconciliation or community progress has been burn out.

Burn out definitely has a higher effect on people in positions of leadership.  Maybe it’s because they have the privilege to leave their positions and find different jobs, or maybe it’s because many of them weren’t Charlottesville locals to begin with, but one-by-one the people who were closely involved in leading the fight against white supremacists at the “Unite the Right” rally began to disappear. 

Take a look at these pictures. 

These are the faith leaders who led the charge of peace against the advancing white supremacist militias on August 11 and 12th of 2017.  While some of them are well known anti-racist theologians like Rev. Sekou, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Cornell West – most were just local pastors.  As a progressive Christian in this small town, I knew all of these local leaders either personally or through a friend.  I won’t name names, but I will say that today, three years later, almost none of them live in Charlottesville.  They burnt out.

And the burn out doesn’t stop at the faith community.  Our mayor and vice-mayor.  Our police chief.  The majority of our police force. Our city manager.  Our Parks and Recreation Director.  Our manager of the Office of Human Rights.  The CEO of our Community FoundationThe President of the University of VirginiaAll of them left their positions in the years to come.  

In some cases, this left Charlottesville open to much needed new leadership.  But in many cases, it felt like a defeat or an abandoning.

PACE YOURSELF

It’s tempting to go fast and strong toward the evils of racism.  You’ve been pushed into the deep end and you want to swim as hard as possible.  But, you’re not swimming across a pool.  You’re swimming across the ocean.  Unless you have you have a life jacket to help you stay afloat, you will drown.

The racism of America has taken 400 years to evolve.  It won’t be undone in the next several years you can give most passionately to the cause. Perhaps most importantly, people of color don’t need you to show up for just a few years.  They need you to show up for the rest of your life, and for your children to show up for the rest of their lives as well.  Undoing racism will take generations.

Which leads me to the most important thing I’ve learned in the last three years since the rallies in Charlottesville.

Learn to rest, not to quit.

A year after the rallies in Charlottesville my daughter was diagnosed with Autism.  Through my research to learn more about how to support her, I found through disability advocates something called spoon theory.  In short, everyone wakes up with a certain number of spoons to use.  Some people have dozens of spoons and can use a new spoon every hour on a new task.  Others only have a few spoons, and once they have been spent, they are done for the day.  Spoon theory applies to activism as well.

Some activists have lots of spoons to give.  Some have few.  Know your spoons.  Rest when they’re gone.  For me, as a working mother of an autistic child, this frequently meant saying, “I can’t attend that protest, but I can write a postcard.”

EVERY DECISION MATTERS

Every decision you make in the coming years will have to be based on anti-racist action.  There are plenty of resources to advise on what anti-racist action looks like.  Begin reading through them and thinking about what you can do.  Long-term change won’t be made by everyone doing everything perfectly, but by lots of people making small changes.

For my family after the rallies, it looked like a reevaluation.  Where did we live? What schools were we sending our kids to? Where did we attend church? What non-profits did we donate to? What voices did we share on social media? Where did we shop? Were our work places doing enough to think critically about racial equity? We looked at every aspect of our lives and tried to keep in mind the needs of our friends of color.  After we made a big decision, particularly ones that seemed quizzical to people not working toward a less racist city, we rested.  We rested so we wouldn’t burn out, because I want to be doing this work for a long time. 

And here’s where I want to put in a caveat.  Don’t use my advice to rest to do nothing.  It’s tempting to say, “I’ve been through so much, I deserve a rest” and then never do anything in the service of racial equality again, citing your appearance in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death as enough work for a lifetime.  In Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he outlines why Black people can’t wait for equality.  Likewise, as communities, as cities, who must move forward with all of our citizens, white people can’t wait either.  The advice to rest, rather, says “Do something, but don’t do everything.”

Oh Minneapolis, how I recognize this painful place you’re in.  Even as your streets are still filled with smoke, and it feels unsafe to be outside, you are recovering.  Like a phoenix you will rise from the ashes.  You will be resilient.

Love,

Charlottesville

It’s like we’re real writers

I remember the first time I brought my eldest daughter to the pediatrician. She was only a few days old, still scrunched and tiny like a little old man.  They called her name from front desk, announcing that the doctor was ready to see her.  I was stunned that someone had called her name.  She was no longer just a secret my husband and I shared, but something that was now a part of the world. Other people would recognize her and call her by the name we had given her.  It felt almost arbitrary.  “We just made up that name, are you sure you want to use it? You’re going to take our word for it?  Maybe an adult should be in charge of this naming process, I’m not sure I did it right.”  That’s a bit how it feels to write a book. 

As Dad and I get closer to having a real book to share with the world, it still feels miraculous that each step is happening.  Like a baby, we willed this thing into the world, and it took a good amount of time to create it. But, there is still disbelief that now other people are able to see it too. It’s no longer a part of our imagination, but part of the world.

One of the many tools we’re are taking advantage of to shape and form this little baby of ours is writing conferences.  We applied to Writer’s Hotel in November of 2018.  We didn’t expect to get in, but much to our surprise, we did!  This forced us to finish our third major edit of the book manuscript, which we submitted in March of 2019.

The editor’s of The Writer’s Hotel were so glowing about the manuscript, it’s helping to correct some of our feelings of “imposter syndrome” as we look at the other impressive people who we will be attending the conference with us.  It began to feel real a few weeks ago when our names appeared in Poets & Writers and we were scheduled to give a reading at The Bowery Poetry Club!  We leave in two days for New York City.  We’re excited to get a chance to hone our manuscript even more!  

If you want to come and cheer on our little book baby, we’ll be reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan on Sunday, June 9 from 7 to 9 p.m.  Hope to see you there!