There is only hope in community.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable writing. Computers used to be tools for work and entertainment, but now looking into a screen literally nauseates me, scrolling on my phone nauseates me. I feel it on the floor of my stomach, rolling around and roaring like hunger.

Today’s learning:

I went to the inaugural event for Inheritance, a project from The Atlantic Monthly with the aim of amplifying and honoring Black history and Black stories. We’ve lost so many stories, which is why the ultra conservative right can make up so many stories about what Black people want, what Black people experience, what Black people deserve.

I learned that Anna Deavere Smith attended a pwi (primarily White institution) college (Beaver College at the time, now Arcadia University) where she was one of very few Black students. Of what I learned in the presentation, that is what really stuck. She was there when MLK, Jr. was murdered, and it wasn’t until that time that that Black women there began to see themselves as a group, the self-named “Beaver College Blacks.” They got some stuff changed at that school. Learn more: Here’s the article.

from artEquity’s For the Love of Justice Campaign

I’m thinking about what allyship looks like when only the-one-to-be-allied-with feels pain. I’m thinking about what allyship looks like when everyone is feeling pain, but different kinds of pain about different things. I’m thinking about what it means to be alone in pain.

I think, and I think, and I think, and then nausea. I realize that the nausea is emotion: helplessness, loneliness, overwhelm, and I have to lie down for a bit. I realize that I’m alone, that I’m thinking too much instead of feeling and working through my emotions in community, and that THIS is the problem.

When I ignore my feelings and get stuck in my brain, I’m hiding myself from myself. I end up wearing “the mask” that Paul Lawrence Dunbar reminds us “grins and lies.” The mask can be protective when we wear it at work, as Jodi Ann Burey points out in her TEDx Talk: “Why You Should NOT Bring Your Authentic Self to Work,” but when we wear it at home, by ourselves, we risk our lives.

I must remember to take my mask off sometimes and just allow myself to hurt, to rage, to do nothing sometimes. I’m drawn to Saundra Dalton-Smith’s ideas about the 7 Types of Rest in her TEDx Talk: “The Real Reason Why We Are Tired and What to Do About It. Sometimes, I just need to turn off my brain, write in my journal, sit in silence or listen to my space heater. I need ALL of the types of rest right now.

According to what little I know of Internal Family Systems theory, we are each one of us a community of selves. All of those selves need a chance to speak with each other, need to listen to each other, need to support and learn from each other, and need to learn when to let each other go. I’m talking to my internal selves and realizing that The Answer To Racism does not need to and cannot come from just me alone. It’s to big a monster to tackle.

I need to occasionally take off the mask of systems-changer, of world disrupter, and spend some time just being Nkomo: teacher/college counselor/group therapist in training. One thing at a time!

Day by day, my stomach is feeling a little better. Time for lunch.

Tips for leading online workshops without making everyone want to cuss you out (pt. 2)

Last week, I went to a 6-hour (!!) racial equity training workshop through Race Forward, an organization that, according to its website, “brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity.” I arrived 10 minutes late to that training right after having left another masterfully moderated, two-hour racial equity training for my school led by Altagracia Montilla, Chief Equity Officer at the Center for Supportive Schools.

Despite being absolutely zoomed out, I went to the level one training at Race Forward and left the 6 hours of training (after 2 previous hours of training) feeling absolutely invigorated and refreshed. I am the proof: it is possible to lead folx through 9 straight hours of zoom without your participants running screaming through the streets (with a mask on)! You just have to be strategic.

  1. Please make the space feel both comfortable and refreshing.

I can’t believe it, but it still appears to be true: there are still folx out there who insist on leading the saddest, most interminable chalk-and-talk meetings in the world. They are really eager to make boring workshops online feel exactly the same as boring IRL workshops, with nasty coffee, stale, soggy sandwiches, and really repetitive and tentative side conversations. Except they want to import that deeply uncomfortable feeling into your home. Don’t do this anymore!

Instead, try to re-create the loveliest, most wonderful in-person meeting experience you remember from the pre-covid days. Perhaps that meeting was a dinner party, or a wedding, or a movie date with a few buddies. Know what those things tend to have in common? Music! Relaxing, or invigorating; silly, or welcoming, or calming. Feel free to do all the normal meeting stuff, but add in a little more comfort.

Wouldn’t it be nice to log into a zoom and hear the peppy, yet calming, bass intro to Lovely Day by (the late) Bill Withers?

“Just one look at you / And I know it’s gonna be / A lovely day” — Me, when I look at my zoom screen and see a video playing this Bill Withers song.

Rule of thumb: play the music at about 30% of the volume that feels right. It’s louder for the participants than it is for you, if you are using the sharing your computer sound. And check in with participants to find a volume where they can hear the music and hear the voices of the facilitators without strain.

2. Turn the lights off. Metaphorically.

About *cough cough* years ago, when I was 27 years old, living on my own (and not in a dorm) for the first time, I threw my first party. Everyone arrived about an hour late, which I expected–except for a couple of friends from upstate, who didn’t know that parties in NYC DO NOT start on time–and I was excited for an evening of relaxation and fun jabber. But 1.5 hours into the actual party, there was still awkwardness in the air, even though everyone had a beverage, the music was great, and the finger food was really tasty. A friend pulled me aside, and told me the problem: “It’s too bright in here,” he said. “People won’t dance or talk to strangers if it feels like they’re on the subway.” And he was right. Moments after I loosened several light bulbs in my overhead fan (this was several months before I installed dimmers), I could see shoulders relaxing, and conversation getting interesting.

Online meeting shouldn’t feel like a party at a 27-year-old’s house, BUT they should be something that every participant has a chance to ease into. Usually, when you go to an IRL meeting, you have time to prepare yourself mentally for what will happen while you travel there. Maybe you get a moment or two in the elevator, or you head into the bathroom and look in to mirror, or you listen to an audiobook in your car. But you get to arrive there. This is not the case in Zoom. At least not for everyone, especially if your zoom is during the work day. You could have folx popping over to your zoom from a meeting that ended 5 minutes before, or they could have just been frantically searching all their emails to find the one right zoom ink among the thousands of zoom links so many of us receive daily.

Would you rather arrive to a meeting to see 10-100 faces staring at you, or to something lower stakes? I particularly enjoy nature scenes or a welcoming padlet full of the positive greetings of attendees for the few 5-10 minutes of a meeting, while everyone trickles in. Then you can start your meeting. Imagine clicking your zoom link and seeing this loveliness, along with greetings for you in the chat box. Relaxation. Welcome. Stress avoided.

3. Breaks.

Generally, Zoom fatigue sets in after about 1.5 hours. That doesn’t mean that your meeting has to be 1.5 hours, however. Rather, it means that you need to have a substantial break from the screen about every hour. And substantial doesn’t mean 5 minutes. It means 15 minutes away from the screen. There are lots of ways to handle the down time. My favorite way is to pick a good Spotify playlist, let folks know what time to come back, and screenshare a timer or youtube countdown like the one below (beware the alarm though; it’s really annoying):

Okay. That’s enough for installment 2. There is so much more to say. But there’s always more to say, and it’s time for my rest.

Tips for leading an online workshop without making everyone want to curse you out (pt. 1)

After a summer of attending, literally, countless webinars and workshops and other zoom, go-to-meeting, and Google meet gatherings about trauma, racism, self-care, living as a BIPOC at a PWI, grounding, antiracism, “The Matrix,” How to be an Antiracist, meditation, college counseling, restorative justice, teaching, dating, Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI), microaggressions (or, racial abuse), creative writing, design thinking, starting a business, and any number of other topics, I’ve become a bit of a Zoom gathering snob. Most (not all!) of the workshops and webinars I participated in were expertly moderated, often by several people, and often centered the needs of folx with hearing or visual disabilities, BIPOC folx, and folx with limited attention spans, poor wifi, or bad computer cameras.

They were, in short, truly welcoming spaces.

Feeling welcomed is always important. But it’s even more so now because so many of us are experiencing a loneliness and sense of invisibility that we never have before. At the same time, we’re even more vulnerable tan we ever have been before because the first time you meet someone you might be looking at where they live, their spouse’s legs, the disarray of their home. To add to that discomfort by creating an alienating online space is at best, irritating, at worse, angering, and at worst, cruel.

I’m now going to list for you some of the things I’ve experienced in zoom meetings that I’m going to go ahead and expect in online meetings henceforth (from myself and others):

  1. The moderators must use a laptop or desktop. An iPad or smartphone will not do.

In an ever-so-slightly better world, it would be possible to use all of the functionalities of zoom on an iPad. We are not in that world. One cannot effectively moderate a zoom meeting from an iPad because iPads do not allow a moderator to see multiple participants at once; this means that moderators on iPads will inevitably fail to see someone raising their hands or waiting to be called on, and someone will definitely be ignored. It feels terrible to get ignored. It’s already difficult (for most folks) to be zooming in the first place, so you don’t want to compound that in any way. As Junot Diaz might say if he inexplicably wrote a book of zoom fiction, “this is how you lose them.” Them, of course, being your attendees.

2. Moderators who struggle with multi-tasking must co-moderate OR use 2 computers. (part 1)

Zoom has a lot of great things going for it, but one of the many annoying things about Zoom (and I say this with all the love in the world for this odd and beautiful platform) is the appearing and disappearing controls. Perhaps my crunchy, 44-year-old brain just needs to be more flexible, but it is time consuming and painful to watch a moderator search in vain for a control on a computer. As a moderator who has been in that situation a couple of times, it feels embarrassing. Moderators have to open and close multiple menus and windows to find just right one. Meanwhile the viewing audience is cringing and trying hard to not get annoyed because, frankly, they could be streaming or sleeping, or doing literally anything else in the world (except leave the country, if they are American). Don’t make them annoyed. Don’t make me annoyed. Use two computers. One computer will work as your moderating computer, and the other one will work as your participating computer. And if you have a second moderator, that person can vamp and keep the conversation going while you figure out your tech. Or they can figure out the tech for you if your computer freezes.

3. Moderators who struggle with multi-tasking must co-moderate OR use 2 computers. (part 2)

Co-moderators should have different jobs. One person should be in charge of constantly scanning the zoom room to see if folx look like they want to speak (like IRL meetings, this can look as subtle as adjusting one’s position or as overt as raising a hand), announcing comments or questions that appear in the chat, explaining how to virtually raise hands (this is different than using a “reaction”), and regularly telling folx (when several people want to ask or answer a question) the order in which people will speak. What should NOT happen is that both moderators act as participants and then get confused about how to use the tech or try to decide between them who should speak next. This is irritating.

4. If all you are doing is talking over slides, then please just record it and send it out to folx. Make your zoom interactive or pre-record it for everyone’s sanity.

We’re all busy. We’re all stressed. We all have lives to lead, babies and furbabies to play with, and meditating and/or praying to do. So if you are going to lead a meeting that just involves your just participants listening to you and looking at words or pictures on a screen, then please don’t make them do it synchronously. It’s like being tied to a chair and whipped with words. You absolutely must use the poll or annotation function in zoom or set up a Kahoot, Quizizz, Quizlet, or Gimkit, or engage in a pretty interesting conversation (see points 3 and 5) to keep your participants feeling like their presence is a necessary part of the experience. Otherwise they will either log off the zoom, or they’ll turn off their video and go do something else with you none the wiser (but still suspecting your non-participating “participants” are off kneading dough or changing cat litter or sleeping).

5. Learn how to lead a discussion.

Shoutout to the journalists and the teachers who know the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. There is no quicker way to watch a zoom dissolve into angry, annoyed silence than to ask folks to ask questions and opine about a self-evident thing. I recently attended a Zoom in which the moderator kept saying things like (and I’m exaggerating for effect, here, the moderator never actually said this):

Nighttime is generally darker than daytime. What do folks have to say about this?

Really bad moderator

Literally no adult in the modern world has any comments about or questions regarding this so-called observation. But then! Then! The moderator actually waited for 30 seconds, re-asked the non-question, then waited another minute (!) for someone to respond. The moderator did a zoom “Bueller, Bueller” for the ages. Oh, how I cringed. How I raged! I beat my breast and rent my clothing like someone in an ancient Greek play, all while furiously typing. I’m sure everyone else was texting and privately chatting just as furiously as I was. But I was trapped there because I wanted a certification or credit of some sort or another. I really, really wanted to leave. And from that point forth, I ceased to participate. I was angry.

DO NOT. And I repeat, DO NOT ASK FOR AN INTERPRETATION OF INFORMATION THAT REQUIRES NO INTERPRETATION. People will revolt by pretending you said nothing. And you, bad moderator, will sit there like pancake batter on a cold, cold grill.

More to come...

How I Failed to Avoid Thinking About September This Week

Me typing or zooming as my cat keeps me company.
  1. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about NYCDOE school reopening plans. While my mind still haven’t gotten my mind around the fact that there is a lethal, airborne illness that could kill me, I am very aware that my family, my students, and their families are susceptible. So does this mean we should all be remote? What, then, of the families who need someone to look after their kids while parents work? What, then of ELL students? Or of students with special needs? Should we all go back to school (part-time at most)? What about the fact that NYC public school buildings are old, and that even during bull markets when NYC is flush with cash, our public school buildings have poorly functioning bathrooms with no soap? And many of our students attend classes in rooms without windows? How will we fix these issues while broke and understaffed, if we can’t do it in the “best” of times?
  2. I’ve attended so many zoom workshops/webinars/meetings this week. Here are the ones I attended:
  3. There are also quite a few that I meant to attend but didn’t have the capacity for on that day:
  4. I have so much to say about all of these events, including the ones I could not attend, but for now, just know that my brain is breaking open with all of the knowledge I’m currently accumulating. More to be shared soon!

The mind is a self-cleaning organ

Today, a friend of mine texted, asking what I’ve been doing all summer. My list was long, but it wasn’t exhaustive. I’m trying to de-fetishize my anxiety-driven busy-ness. Instead, I chose to emphasize all the learning I’m doing, which has created some really grounding and inspiring moments in this crazy, C-19 time.

Today I experienced 4 separate wonderfully joyful moments. First, I attended (through the absolutely wonderful Academy for Teachers) a workshop on using music to connect to activism and self-worth in the classroom.

Second, I attended a workshop led by folks at my new school–oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that I have a new job!–around creating a more inclusive and course planning document.

Third, I went with a colleague and new friend at my new school to see the 5 p.m. porch concerts, which was a neighborhood Charles Mingus-style jazz jam with musicians that looked to range in age from 14 to 70.

Click to learn about the ongoing music-making, music-teaching,
and community in Ditmas Park.

Fourth, I hung out for a short bit with my beautiful mother. We looked at photos from an old photo album (how analog!), and it was so nice to see my mom looking young and vibrant and beautiful. She is still vibrant and beautiful, but her hair is white now. I’d forgotten how dark her hair was, and how cool she looked with dreds.

Finally, I spent some time today skimming through Ideas, Arrangements, Effects, a book that aims to unpack this idea: complex ideas like racism, capitalism, Marxism, and all the other big ideas) manifest in how spaces (literal, figurative, and/or social) are arranged, and those (literal, figurative, and/or social) spaces affect people.

So much of what I see online attempts to use step-by-step, one-size-fits-all approaches to explaining how one goes about dismantling racist policies, as if fixing institutions that have been designed to maintain classist, racist, and elitist hierarchies is as easy as disassembling a piece of IKEA furniture. That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that one can fix an abusive family dynamic by agreeing to hug one another once a day. To fix a harmful family dynamic, you need a framework. Fixing a harmful societal dynamic requires AT LEAST that much.

Here’s a quote from the book that is sticking with me (pg. 46):

As humans, we are prone to thinking “I-P-E” or Ideas-PEOPLE-Effects. That means we tend to look for whom we can blame when we experience negative effects. This leads us to believe that effects emerge from the deficiencies of individuals, rather than flawed arrangements. Think about when you are waiting in line for a bus that’s late, and everyone gets a little mad at everyone else. It is really easy to get irritated with the person who is talking too loud on the phone, or pushing, or who smells bad. But we tend not to ask the bigger questions about why there aren’t more buses, why the roads are so crowded, or why more people can’t walk to where they need to go.

Emboldened emphasis is mine. “Arrangements” appears to be a friendlier version of the word “systems.”

As I think about the exclusive ways that many schools are run, I’m hoping that reading this book (perhaps with this book group!) will help me get my mind around dismantling racism in schools and in my new, virtual classroom. There’s so much to unpack within my understanding of school and within myself.

Tomorrow, I will attend the last installment of the BIPOC in PWI series put on by ArtEquity. I learned about that through someone I met at the (virtual) Step Up 2020: Moving Racial Equity Forward Conference in Snohomish County, WA. Sharing resources is the BUSINESS. Lift as we climb.

Speaking of which, while listening to a recent playlist on Spotify (I keep looking but can’t figure out which one), I came across Burna Boy. Yes, I’m late to this particular pop star party, but I was moved. I mean, literally moved. I was dancing. It’s been so long since a pop song made me feel COMPELLED to dance. It didn’t make me WANT to dance. I just found myself bopping along while listening, dancing in the street, singing along (to the degree that I thought I knew the words, which I see (according to the video below) that I most certainly DID NOT).

Here it is:

Now you try sitting still!

Anti-Racist Book Club: 1st Meeting +etc.

Last week, I facilitated my first meeting of an antiracist book club for some teachers I know, and a couple of friends. We’re reading Dr. Kendi’s How to Be Anti-Racist. I decided how many chapters we read per meeting by just stealing the schedule from a How to Be Anti-Racist “discussion group” led by the folks at Daybreaker.

Easy to audiobook, but
you MUST READ.

I loved listening to the audiobook, but the group helped me realize that facilitating a conversation about a highly conceptual, non-fiction book is COMPLETELY out of my wheelhouse. I’m used to leading conversations that looking for the hidden complexities in fairly easy-to-read (for me!) text; I’m not as used to looking for simpler ways to understand difficult text.

For example,

“White assimilationist ideas challenge segregationist ideas that claim people of color are incapable of development, incapable of reaching the superior standard, incapable of becoming White and therefore fully human. Assimilationists believe that people of color can, in fact, be developed, become fully human, just like White people. Assimilationist ideas reduce people of color to the level of children needing instruction on how to act.” (Ch. 2)

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

I was about one sentence into verbally breaking that quote down before I realized that no, no, I can’t just swerve and improvisationally facilitate my way through this book like I can through a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird or An American Marriage I can’t just listen to on audiobook and get it. This is the kind of book that must be read, and read closely. Kendi’s very conversational narrative style and and soothing voice on the audiobook made me feel like he wasn’t saying very complex things. As if I “got it” without any problems. But when I actually read the quotations I collected from everyone to get a sense of what they understood about the reading, I realized that I would have to reckon with the writing for real.

Side note: I suddenly got why sometimes students think they understand a text they don’t, even if they are reading along and listening along while I read aloud. I really must continue reading books that are DIFFICULT for me; helps me empathize with students’ struggles.

I think the first group went fine. There were introductions and breakout groups and discussion topics, but really? I need to make it a little bit more raw. We need folks to ask and answer questions. I also need to get together a script of some norm-setting stuff I want to say. I’m not an expert, we’re here to learn, ouch and oops, step up and step back, etc. I’d also love someone to lead a grounding meditation, but I’m not that kind of person (yet), so maybe I will find one online to lead it. Some suggestions afterwards were to have folks present questions to the group, and to break into rooms to discuss those questions. Another suggestion was to ask for facilitators for each breakout group. This is shaping itself into a structure and perhaps I can continue to perfect the structure and lead more discussion groups for this and for future zooming with my kids.

It took me a while to get started, but I just finished re-listening to chapter 2 and listening to chapter 3 . I don’t think I totally got what Dr. Kendi was saying the the first time through. It’s not that the two choices we all face are assimilationist and segregationist; it’s that both of those approaches are in opposition to antiracism.Chapter 3 is about the body. If the connection is there that I suspect will be there, I’d like to consider it in light of Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands. More on Menakem at the Re-Rooted podacast.Outside of the book, I have been exploring antiracism by attending 2 events at the Emancipated Hackathon by zoom where I ran into two former students of mine (one of whom was running the whole event), all grown up! Amazing (how old I am)! The world just continues. I move into middle age, and they move into young adulthood. I was one of the older folks in the zoom room by far, and I could feel myself stretching to imagine bringing all of the pedagogical approaches from that conference into my classroom authentically.

Could I imagine leading my students, or even other educators in my antiracist bookclub in a meditation? Could I imagine leading them in a celebration of our ancestors? Could I imagine even bringing those practices into my own life? So much of the way I’ve been brought up in the White education system has involved separating my body from my mind, separating my current from my past, until all I am is unmoored intellectual energy. That has to stop, and it begins with acknowledging my body’s needs and connecting to my roots.

Of course, asserting my physical and self-understanding needs isn’t limited to the classroom or to leading book discussions on zoom. Rather, the classroom Nkomo (IRL and online) and the Zoom Nkomo need to be in alignment with physical-all-the-time-not-teaching Nkomo. All of these aspects of my self are connected to my physical body, and all of those spaces need time for connecting with myself (possibly through meditation, possibly through journaling) and for ancestral understanding.I have been talking to both my parents about their parents and grandparents. My mom emailed me a family tree chart with information on it, and my dad gave me some information while I was walking and talking on the phone with him, but I need to reach out again because I forgot some of the really cool names on his side before I got back home. Inspired by the idea of a genogram, I want to figure out a little more of who I am so that as I teach, as I discuss books with others, as I continually become myself, I’m fully aware of what I’m working with. I’m delving.

How can I expect my kids to delve and to recognize their multiple deep selves if I do not do the work on my own? I’ve lost a lot of my cultural identity. Not on purpose, and not maliciously. I assimilated into my mostly White classes as a child in public school and my mostly White boarding school when I was a teenager, and my mostly White college as a young adult. And now I’m trying to reclaim my birthright to my own culture. It’s waiting for me; I just gotta go get it so that I can help students do the same.

The funny thing, though, is that I feel like this is my time, like I was born in the wrong era. Though maybe it’s because of folks like me that this era exists. The Black folks who liked Johann Sebastian Bach and Sebastian Bach in the 90s. And Muddy Waters and Blues Traveler, and medieval motets and Digable Planets, and Rickie Lee Jones and La Lupe and Natascha Atlas. I was ostracized from some parts of the Black community for it my interests, my voice, the “way I talked.” Had my second black teacher when I got to college, and my first Black teacher in 1st grade. I thought I was alone in my nerdiness, but I guess I was one of millions that I never connected to. This old story. This old, old story. No internet, you see? I spent a lot of time being lonely, and I look to these young folks and think–if only I could have found your predecessors. In 30 years, we’ll all basically be the same age (old), but right now, I’m a young elder, and I’m starting from almost scratch, learning from those I’ve taught because they know a little more and listen a little better.

Good news: 1. I’ve been accepted to the Eastern Group Psychotherapy Society group leadership training program for Fall 2020. I’m excited to begin learning how to lead group experiences like this. 2. My school is putting real effort into antiracist pedagogy and systems for the kids and families next year.

Meh news: Middle schoolers can’t really have conversations that are as open as those I’ll start learning to lead through EGPS; how will my training help me to apply the methodology in developmentally appropriate ways?

Interesting news: Last week of school!

We’re all exhausted

I’m leading two different anti-racist book groups: one for mostly teachers, and one for fellow trustees on a board of which I’m a member. It’s great practice, I think, for me to work on talking about anti-racism with people who don’t have the background with it that I do. And I don’t mean my Blackground, I mean my history of reading about the various permutations of systemic racism.

We All Have Work To Do

Killer Mike’s Emotional Speech

I had a lot of conversations yesterday about the looting, the uprisings, and the expression of black pain. All the black people I spoke to, while certainly not wanting to get involved themselves because we’re all in our 40s or older, all had the same thought: Burn the s**t down.

Of course, I don’t want to live in a world of rubble and the destruction of buildings. But at the same time, I don’t want to live in a world made of the rubble of the systemic destruction of lives.

“But how will the white supremacists and unfeeling people in power respond?” my white friends asked. “The destruction will just make them behave worse!” But will it? What is worse than killing black people in their homes, in the cars, asking for help, going for a run, or just being alive? What’s worse than that, exactly? What’s worse than thousands more black people than white people dying from a pandemic because of having low- wage jobs where they can’t work from home, or from living in close quarters with many others because rent is skyrocketing and folks can’t afford to live in decently priced homes?

Killer Mike clears it up it out: what’s worse is having nothing when it is all over.

Part of my pain as a black woman during this time is shame and regret. I haven’t done enough to support my students in my school. Yes, in my class, I made sure to be an anti-racist as I could consciously be, by talking about race and class in class, by reading books by black and brown authors, by encouraging then to know their history, by incorporating rap and hip hop into my curriculum (I rapped in front of my kids, and they were both embarrassed and impressed), by showing movies that showcase black actors as leads and not background characters, by trying my darndest to figure out a TikTok dance (and failing), by reading as many books by black authors as I could.

But, here’s my secret: I don’t have very many black friends. I don’t hang out in very many black spaces (except, now, virtually), and often times, I feel as if my history as a black New Yorker isn’t “black” enough. Of course, that’s ridiculous. But it’s a feeling that I have sometimes, and that is also part of the shame. How can I support black and Brown people if I am daily steeping myself in whiteness and, indirectly, white supremacy?

I think that my doubling down on the “Burn the S**t Down” talking point is perhaps my way of trying to make up for my past failures to call out the racism, classism, ethnocentrism, ableism, and ageism I have seen all around me. I think I wanted to my s**t down.

I’ve been taking the easy way out.

What I love about Killer Mike’s speech is that he acknowledges the anger and he acknowledges the desire to destroy. He acknowledges the failures of the federal government. He acknowledges the racist history of his hometown. But he also recognizes that there are police officers in his family. That there are cities that have prosecuted police officers. And, most importantly, that you gain nothing from destroying your own “home,” even if you feel like destroying everything.

“Home” can mean all sorts of things. Your actual home. Your community. Places that provide jobs to your community. A sense of safety. The ability to believe that tomorrow could be better. These are things that you don’t want to destroy.

Now, There are those who are annoyed and don’t think that Killer Mike is doing Atlanta any favors. And as a New Yorker who pays scant attention to Atlanta politics, I don’t have the insight or research to fact-check Killer Mike or writer Devyn Springer of The Independent, but I can fact-check my own motivations behind telling people that I support destruction at this time. I don’t support destruction in any other situation. It’s strange that I would even say I support it now. It’s a form of acting in, and I’m taking this time to acknowledge it. It’s shame.

I want to be an anti-racist educator, but I’ve got to do better and let less slide when I see and hear casual injustice in the faculty room and at happy hour. Every faculty room in every school has it. Every happy hour at every school has it.

I’ve got to actively join and participate in a black community without fearing that I won’t be accepted (I’m still re-living can’t-fit-in trauma form the 80s, when it black folks who listened to rock or spoke Standard English without being called a traitor to the race or an oreo cookie or some nonsense). I’ve got to allow the black community an opportunity to accept me. It’s an old story, that I’m not good enough, and I need to toss it into the trash. Times have changed. We’ve had a black President. Everyone listens to rock and rap and whatever category XXXTENTACION and TeaMarr and Joel are. Ain’t nobody gonna call me out for “talking white.” Not anymore.

My email inbox is flooded with organizational manifestos promising to “re-dedicate” themselves to “being anti-racist” and “committing to supporting the community” and all sorts of conveniently vague action items. I hate vague. It’s lazy thinking.

So, as an educator and as a black woman, I specifically pledge to:

  1. Call it as I see it. No more protecting fragile egos from my frustration when I hear racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnocentric garbage in casual conversation with colleagues. Even if I love you. I refuse to erase myself. No me without we.
  2. Re-embrace the black community and actively join it. I love my people, but I haven’t been joining them as much as I should have been these past years. I see myself as a part of it by blood, but I need a black crew around me, and I need to support some black adults. I need someone to process all this life stuff with (from dating to books to shows to political uprisings), and I’m going to actively find those people. I have some already, but dang my current posse likes to travel. I need some folks near me so we can talk in person (from six feet away and with masks on). No me without we.
  3. Do the Work. While my primary mission–to help me develop my own solid footing in my own racial identity and history–is to deepen my understanding of my blackness. I am a teacher of all different ethnicities and backgrounds of children, and I need to have a stronger understanding of the literature, arts, and cultural expressions of ALL the children in my classroom, and yes, this includes white children. But also non-binary children, gay children, children with disabilities. We all have deep and important histories, and I need to investigate those more deeply. Right now this means reading literature or consuming media from PR, DR, and Central America and from their emigrants to NYC. This does not includes posting slogans on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or whatever new thing comes along. No me without we.
  4. Be humble. I need to bring a child’s mind to this work. Some white folks look at me and see expertise in race work. Ha! I can’t be seduced by that. I’m learning and must always be learning about this work. I need to acknowledge that I am no expert, just a learner who might be a little further along, but not by much. I need to learn from those who came before me in the anti-racist struggle. No me without we.
  5. Take care of myself. All of this stuff is difficult emotional work. So sometimes I have to let myself take a break and allow others to do the work without feeling like I’ve failed. I can’t push myself until there is nothing left of my emotional resilience. No one benefits from an educator who is too tired to be kind. So this means taking a break from the news when I need to. Not staying informed about every new injustice at every second of every day. Choosing my battles. Allowing myself some moments of humor when I’m in pain. Remaining steadfast in my belief that even if progress is slow, it’s still progress.

What work do YOU pledge to do?

Eyes Wide Open: Looking In, Looking Out

Just finished participating in a virtual seminar by Paula Scher, one of the most influential graphic designers in the world. I won attendance at her virtual seminar through the Academy for Teachers, which is a membership organization for teachers that aims to provide teacher community through intellectually stimulating conversations and events. Through them, I have been lucky enough to do in-person workshops with Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish, Professor Joshua Katz, spoken word artist and poet Taylor Mali*, Professor Jeff Nunokawa*, and (hopefully, if I win the lottery) with author Karen Russell*.

After watching a documentary about Paula Scher on Netflix (season 1, episode 6 of “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix), I got a chance to hear from Scher herself about her creative process and some of the projects she created.

Here’s what I took away from both the documentary and from her talk:

  1. Creativity requires keeping your senses open. There’s a wonderful opening set of sequences in “Abstract” during which you see NYC though Scher’s eyes. She sees herself primarily as a typography expert (because, as she said in the seminar, she is not a very good illustrator), and the camera focuses on all the different kinds of type you see all over New York. Manhattan (and, to a much lesser degree, Brooklyn) is a city of signs and letters that all present different ways of presenting ideas. Serifs on words tend to imply an old-world, classical, upper class approach to things (thus, the multiple revamps of the masthead for The New York Times) and a lack of serif tends to imply something new and creative or (oddly enough) European. In the video sequence, Scher talks about how sometimes fonts out in the world are mismatched and she has an impulse to fix them. I love seeing the world through her eyes. At another point in the “Abstract” episode, Scher mentions that she will often go to the city to get ideas. Looking around fills her mind with new thoughts and new patterns she can incorporate into her design ideas. For instance, in designing the logo for The Highline, Scher used a capital “H” with two lines through the middle to imply railroad tracks (which is apt, because The Highline was originally an abandoned elevated railroad).
The logo for The Highline, inspired by railroad tracks

2. Creativity can require an attention to detail and a willingness to just trust your gut. Sometimes simultaneously. One of my favorite details about the creation of The Highline logo is that Scher created it quickly, in couple of minutes on the back of a business card she had handy. During the seminar, she said, “Time doesn’t make design better.” That is to say, sometimes going with your gut can create the right feeling you need in a piece of art. Though, I would add the caveat that developing strong gut emotions that connect to a very strong visual sensibility was also the results of having done A LOT of work and study in visual arts. At the time of the Highline rebranding and creation, Scher had been a working designer for over 20 years. I’m also reminded of the book Sources of Power by Gary Klein, in which Klein finds that all of the amazing “intuitive” and split-second moves made my emergency room nurses, firefighters, pilots and the like comes from thousands of hours of lived experience. Perhaps that’s the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell popularized or the 728 to 16,120 Hour Rule. Whatever the exact number (and really, I don’t care about that number. The number is this: many), that split-second of amazing choice-ness or gut feeling is actually the end results of an uncountable amount of time putting in what the folks at 6seconds.org call practicing “deliberately in the smartest way you can.”

What all am I getting at? Well, I suppose that I’m thinking in terms of what is means to become a very good teacher. I have been practicing all this teacher-y stuff for 16 years now, and some stuff I’m still working on, like classroom management. My particular approach to classroom management has mostly involved making engaging lessons. But that isn’t enough, sometimes. With the help of blog posts, books, and mini courses from educational thought leaders Dave Stuart, Jr., Angela Duckworth‘s Character Lab, and Angela Watson’s The Cornerstone for Teachers, my classroom management is getting stronger and stronger. But it’s not yet at the gut level. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Trainings around group dynamics through the Center for Group Studies, workshops with EGPS, and classes in my Masters in School Counseling have helped me see that at least some of my struggles in classroom management come from my background. All those thousands of hours of being a young person in my household have had an impact on me. I have a hard time not channeling my mother whenever a kid misbehaves. And my mom was great for ME, but I tend to be a rule follower. My goal is to help my students be rule followers when following rules is to their long-term benefit. I’d also like to help them be better at simply communicating about what isn’t working for them.

Perhaps this is too much to ask, but I don’t think it is. I continue to mull it over. by teaching them to look at themselves and the choices they make, and using that information to help them create academic work. Still doing my WHOKNOWSHOWMANY hours to figure this out.

Other things on my mind:

  1. Priya Parker‘s The Art of Gathering Newsletter introduces me to new ways to think of remote learning and remote connection in every post.
  2. I watched the George Floyd video last night before bed and wept.
  3. I’m considering attending this workshop from the Othering and Belonging Institute on how to use narrative to help us connect to others.
  4. Trying to think about using Kialo to facilitate online debates. Weighing that against giving my students yet another site to learn to navigate.
  5. Trying to decide if I want to spend my precious mind time being amused by a live magazine or an arthouse film on mubi or reading on my kindle or grading or just staring straight ahead into nothingness and sweating because THE HUMIDITY in NYC is UNBEARABLE.