Toni Morrison flipping the script on labels

9 Aug

“In 2012, President Obama awarded [Toni Morrison] the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recognizing her for “her nursing of souls and strengthening the character of our union.”

Obama described her as ‘one of our nation’s most distinguished storytellers,’ a judgment that was nearly unanimous among literary critics. They tussled, however, over whether Ms. Morrison was best described as an African American writer, an African American female writer or simply an American writer — and whether the label mattered at all.

‘I can accept the labels,’ Ms. Morrison told the New Yorker in 2003, ‘because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.'”

 – Excerpted from Toni Morrison’s obituary in the Washington Post, August 6, 2019

This is who we are

19 Jul

Several years ago in Los Angeles, a guy cut me off in a parking lot. That escalated into yelling out of windows and, to my utter shame, I yelled for this Arab-looking man to go back home.

I was ashamed then and more so now and have never repeated this epithet.

But to say this is not who we are as Americans is not entirely true. This is who we are on our worst day. I would give a lot to be able to apologize to this man.

Matthew Sunderland, Joshua Tree, CA in “16,000 Readers Shared Their Experiences of Being Told to ‘Go Back. Here Are Some of Their Stories” in The New York Times, 7.19.19

In a pattern of reporting on hate speech and action that includes a subsequent disavowal by communities of what got said and done by members of their communities in their communities (“those aren’t our values”… “that isn’t us…”) I appreciate this individual owning their actions, and thereby owning that this is him. Not all of him. I believe what Bryan Stevenson has said: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

And still. This is Matthew Sunderland. This is California. This is the United States.

And so could be the admission and the desire to repair.

I worry about the denials of communities and individuals regarding “who we are on our worst day,” because if we don’t admit it, then we can never repair it and get better. And that’s the insult upon injury: you’ve been told to “go back” and then that it didn’t really happen, it couldn’t have. Because that’s not us. OK?

Quote–and call to action–for today

19 May


Moral arc of universe

Here’s more about Robert Smith’s commencement address and gift to the graduating class at Morehouse today.

And here’s a question: what have I done today to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice? How about you?

Quote of the day

3 Apr

“Rather than being grasped too tightly and hugged for too long as a morning greeting, my hand was shaken and I was looked squarely in the eye and I was welcomed to my Monday morning. I realized this is what it actually feels like to be on the inside, to be one of the boys. In this space, respect and safety are out in the open. They are not just found in the shadows and the corners.”

–Michelle Williams, Actor

National Black Lives Matter in School Week of Action Starter Kit

14 Jan

A quick post to share this resource: The National Black Lives Matter in School Week of Action (February 4-8, 2019) Starter Kit.

The demands of the BLM at School movement are commonsense, vital and beneficial, yes, for black students–and for all students, teachers and families:

  1. End “zero tolerance” discipline, and implement restorative justice
  2. Hire more black teachers
  3. Mandate black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum
  4. Fund counselors not cops

And even if you don’t teach, this document, which includes tips for talking with young children, is worth a read.

If you believe that black lives matter, what are the principles you stand for, and how do take action?

“She/her/hers”… thanks for sharing?

23 Oct

When I added my pronouns to the signature line of my work emails, a couple of colleagues and friends asked: what’s up with that?

While I was certainly not the first to do, I was, for some of my contacts, the first they had noticed. And I want to say how grateful I am that they asked. We live in a time when there’s a lot of felt pressure to “get it right,” to “be woke,” and to already know what is socially correct to others.

Good luck with that.

All we can do is accept that we live in a world of people who aren’t us, notice whatever we think is normal (and how much it may mean to us), decide whether we care about connecting with others, and if we do, then get curious and learn.

So a sincere thanks to those who asked, who cared enough to take a minute to get curious and have a conversation. I ended up writing a couple of emails about how the English language ends up assigning gender through 3rd person pronouns (“Alison founded Blink Consulting. She has been a consultant for almost 15 years…”), and that I work with a lot of people–some of whom I haven’t met yet, and many of whom have never asked and I’ve never told which pronouns to use when referring to me. And since we use pronouns like names for people, doesn’t it make sense to let others know which ones we respond to? I don’t get emails addressed to “Alex” or “Buttons,” probably because people have taken the time to find out to whom they should address their correspondence. And if they care enough to know my name, it makes sense that they would want to know my pronouns, so they can refer clearly to me, not Buttons.

This brings me to today, when I noticed another colleague’s signature line. After her pronouns, she’s inserted: (What’s this?)

That link takes you to a blog post: “Why sharing gender pronouns at work matters” on Culture Amp by Alexis Croswell. It’s a useful read, that addresses the practice and  underlying beliefs about pronoun sharing, including this framing for those of us who are wondering what’s the big deal:

If a person has never had to worry about which pronoun others use for them, gender pronouns might not seem important. [Culture Amp’s Insights Strategist Steven] Huang says, “For most, their singular and visible gender identity is a privilege. Not everybody has this privilege; those that are referred to with the wrong pronoun can feel disrespected, invalidated, and alienated.” You can’t always tell what someone’s gender pronouns are by looking at them. Knowing and using someone’s gender pronouns is a positive way to support the people you work with.

The article is now hyperlinked in my signature as well. And I’m happy to continue having the conversation.

*Thanks to my colleague SL for the resource.

Care about body safety?

11 Oct

Just a quick post from Upworthy about a 3rd grade teacher’s developmentally supportive and scaffolding lesson about consent. While I think body safety is an issue that should be universal and nonpartisan (at least for anybody with a body who knows other people with bodies), if this isn’t an issue of concern for you, I think there are still takeaways here about how to have vital conversation that matter to you and that you believe matter for the well-being of children and youth.

And while we’re on the topic of body safety, I think it’s a great opportunity to practice equity and inclusion, which is to say:

  • Address body safety for every individual and all people
  • Address body safety as an issue which impacts different groups of people unfairly.

Does it surprise you to hear that in my work, I come across a common concern about gender and sexuality inclusion, specifically regarding safety in bathrooms, locker rooms, dormitories, and camping and other housing accommodations for students?

Let me be clearer: whether or not folks name it, the concern is for the safety of cisgender and heterosexual students, who may be preyed upon by transgender and queer classmates. And the concern about sexuality inclusion also extends to queer kids acting sexually inappropriately with each other.

Here is where it’s helpful to distinguish between stereotypes and what my colleague D. King refers to as “research-based generalizations”:

  • A stereotype is a fixed idea about what a group of people is like, based on inevitably limited personal experience, social biases and assumptions, and a “made up my mind” (consciously or not) mindset.
  • A research-based generalization not a 100% and forever proven fact, but a theory grounded in some study.

It is a stereotype that transgender and LGBQQ people are more sexually active and inappropriate or predatory than cisgender and heterosexual people. And this isn’t just an unfortunate stereotype; it’s one that drives exclusionary, unfair and even mortally endangering policies and practices. While examples of cisgender and heterosexual sexual misconduct abound, it signals the privilege of these identities that we don’t seem inclined as a society to theorize that cisgender and heterosexual people group may be even more dangerous than transgender and LGBQQ folks combined.

Here’s perhaps a hybrid of stereotype and research-based generalization: locker rooms can be body-unsafe place for any students. While I haven’t found a robust study, different groups have written about bullying in locker rooms as a general issue that is not-limited-to gender identity or sexuality.

And here’s a research-based generalization:

Trans kids suicide stats

Of all the reasons why trans kids may be more susceptible to suicidal ideation, we have to include their cognizance of the stereotypes about people who identify within the cisgender binary.

Which is why we need to teach body safety both as a universal and also with a commitment to bias reduction and anti-discrimination. We need to:

  • Honor the importance of body safety for all.
  • Name homophobia and transphobia and their basis (fact or low-hanging fruit of prejudice?)
  • Point out that focusing only on the behaviors of trans and queer kids creates a blind spot that enables inappropriate and dangerous cis and hetero behavior. And that we have reason to be concerned that a group of kids who are all hetero and cisgender are not, in fact, guaranteed to be body safe.
  • Recognize that this isn’t just an individual behavior issue: it’s a cultural behavioral issue, and an institutional design question. Dorms, locker rooms, bathrooms and other facilities were traditionally designed in the US on the assumption that gender determined sexuality. And that is just not the case. So we need to talk to all kids about body and sexuality safety, include people in the assignments we make about where we presume they will be/feel safe, and offer options to include and empower everyone in our communities to thrive (and here’s the catch) without requiring them to disclose who they are.
  • What?! Kids don’t have to tell us? Yes, I said that. First of all, identity is life-long in formation. Or as Jack Kornfield says, “We think of ourselves as nouns, and we’re really verbs.” So I may not be able to tell you accurately for all time how I identify. Secondly, it may not be safe to disclose. You may want to know, but you don’t have the right to compel me to tell you, especially if I don’t feel safe. Third, it’s not about stereotyping people’s behaviors based on their identities. How people behave is definitely a nature-nurture question, and what communities need to do is focus where they have agency, which is not how someone got born, but how we empower them to be in community with us and us to be in community with them.