Some news stories that caught our eye this week:

The Army just released new regulations that specify “unauthorized hairstyles.” Thousands have signed a White House petition challenging the racially biased restrictions. “While the Army certainly isn’t the first to impose these kinds of prohibitions, it may be the most egregious example, considering that the 26,000 black women affected by AR 670-1 are willing to die for their country.”

What does the science documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and social justice have in common? Neil deGrasse Tyson. A must-read for the feminist science fan.

The White House has a new PSA about sexual assault as part of the 1 is 2 Many campaign. What do you think of it?

MLKpinI am not talking about exercise or turning off the electronics—both good ideas—but about social justice work. Last week, the speaker at our Shabbat service to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Alexes Harris, grabbed my daughters’ attention. Instead of leaving them feeling like the world’s problems are too big to fix, she inspired them to be actors in their own lives and community. WOW! Anyone who gets my kids as excited about justice as the latest beauty blog is someone I need to pay attention to.

One of my daughters said, “This speech was not just about Dr. King’s legacy, but what I can do today, with attainable ideas, small things that are acts of social justice.” Yes, she really said that. Here is a shortened version of the speech that got her there:

I am a mother, wife, daughter, friend, professor and social activist…. I am a person, who was raised in a community that stressed the importance of caring for my family members, my neighbors, and people around me. I am a sociologist who conducts research on social stratification and inequality in the United States…. I was asked to speak about Dr. King’s legacy, what this might mean to us today and how we can become more engaged in social justice work. I would like for you first to picture Dr. King in your mind. Visualize his picture in a frame on the wall in your living room. Then picture a portrait of yourself on the same wall right next to his picture. And envision a square frame around your face. There are four sides. Think of each theme I raise as one part of this frame. With each part of my discussion, I hope I help you think of your role as a social activist—your part to play in Dr. King’s legacy. How do you fit in as an individual in the broader discourse about Dr. King and social justice? My aim is for you not to be passive in the celebration of Dr. King’s life, but someone who celebrates his legacy by taking action all year round.

FRAME #1

For the first part of our frame, the right part, I will begin by discussing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy…. Dr. King spoke and wrote about poverty, inequality, and racial injustice in the United States, he fought for the right for all people to vote, he eloquently spoke about the insidious effects of poverty, state oppression, and violence. He spoke out against the Vietnam War; he fought for workers’ rights, equality in living wages, and the right for unions to organize.

“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.… I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech).”

He was arrested over 20 times, had his home bombed, and gave over 2,500 speeches. His legacy is that everyone who says his name respects him and that we have the right to vote and we have a social justice vision to strive for: three meals a day, education, culture, dignity, equality, and freedom. For everyone regardless of our race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, pay grade, nationality, immigration status, and age. This is Dr. King’s legacy and this is social justice.

FRAME #2

The second piece to our frame, the top part, is the connection to current issues today—pressing down on us…. Many people note that we have a president of African American decent and suggest that we are “post-racial” that racism is no longer a problem. Unfortunately, many of the same issues that Dr. King spoke about we still struggle with today…. We see in every arena from education, to poverty, to homelessness, to incarceration rates, to HIV transmission, people of color and poor people continue to suffer in this country. Whether it is from direct racism, color blind racism, or inattention to or lack of caring and love, we have several problems in our society that need attention.

We need to continue to make changes in our criminal justice system—we need to tackle the racial and ethnic disproportionality. We need to tackle the criminalization of our mentally ill, of our poor, and of our children. Washington’s incarceration rate has roughly tripled since the 1970s, and is estimated to increase by 23% in 2019. Partly due to the war on drugs we have over 16 million people with felonies (7.5% of the U.S. population), and over 2 million living behind bars. Nationally, 1 in 3 adult Black men have a felony conviction. In Washington, studies show that among felony drug offenders, Black defendants have higher odds of being sentenced to prison than similarly situated White defendants. Criminal conviction leads to limited housing and employment opportunities, legal debt, political disenfranchisement, and a host of problems experienced by families and communities….

FRAME #3

Third side of our frame, the left side, what is social justice and what does it mean to you personally?… Dr. King said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” What does your conscience tell you? I can’t write this frame for you. But, in Dr. King’s words we can find encouragement. Dr. King outlined common goals for social justice—beliefs that are common across all faiths and societies. Speaking on poverty and inequality he said, “In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny … We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

Dr. King told us that we must care about each other, we must care about those less fortunate than ourselves…. This is our common bond across faiths, cultures, and age groups. I encourage you to reflect on what social justice means to you personally. What does your faith, your education, and your experiences tell you are unjust and that you must change? Even if we are afraid, or feel overwhelmed? What can we do to make a difference?

FRAME #4

Finally, for the fourth part of our frame, the bottom, I ask you how can you become engaged and take action?… I suggest that we start within our families and among our loved ones. How can we make their lives better?… We can talk about our values, what our Rabbis, Priests, Imams, and teachers say. We can reinforce to our children that what they read in the Torah or learn in school is not just about words or ideas but about action and interaction. It only means so much if we don’t live by example.

We can make sure our children look out for other children who may be different from them, who may be new to their school, or may not have as many friends…. We can acknowledge our own mistakes, that we are not perfect, we have limitations, but tomorrow is a new day to try again.

We can call others into question when they make racist or homophobic statements in our presence. We can simply say, “Your words are inappropriate and hurtful.” We need to be mindful, as Dr. King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” When we are at work we can say that that joke is not funny, in fact it is offensive. We can stand up in little, but immense ways for ourselves and others.

In sum, if you think about our four frames for social justice:

  • To our right, we have Dr. King’s legacy—and Mandela’s—and so many others who have come before us who have given their lives for social justice: freedom, equality, and improved quality of life for others;
  • Above our heads we have—pressing on us—contemporary social problems: poverty, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, inequality in terms of living wages, health care, access to quality education. Problems that can weigh us down but we are reminded that our fear, our sadness, is our fuel to push on…. Let whatever you are afraid of be your courage to fight for change. Only you can figure this out;
  • To our left we have our personal definition of social justice—issues we personally care about and want to make a difference in; and
  • Below us, guiding us, we have our action steps: every day actions, short-term and long-term actions we can take to make bigger strides towards social justice.

You have your personal frame for social justice. Now, you can no longer wake up and ignore social justice. You can no longer only remember Dr. King on his birthday or our national holiday. You have a personal reminder of his legacy—a personal frame—that should remind you of the work you have ahead of you…. I leave you with Dr. King’s words, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Want to hear more from Dr. Harris? She has a book coming out, A Pound of Flesh:  Monetary Sanctions as a Permanent Punishment for the Poor where she talks about how the system extracts money from criminals as further punishment, even after they completed their incarceration, and how this stops them from ever returning to society as contributing individuals.

Did you watch the Golden Globes? I did. I used to watch because I LOVE movies and television and was always caught up with who’s who and what’s what. Now I have 2 small children and I’m lucky if I know the names of the characters on Super Why. I watched because I might just be a liiiiitle fanatical about Amy Poehler, and she was hosting along with Tiny Fey. (Squeee!) I thought they killed it—it was great. tinaandamy

However, some people took issue with the amount of estrogen at the event. Seriously. It’s an event celebrating an industry that has a terrible track record for treating women equitably and with dignity, and some folks can’t handle it when women have the mic. Talk about silencing. Whether we like it or not, the media has a powerful influence on how we think and act in the world. And unfortunately, the Golden Globes illuminated those issues—sexism, racism, heterosexism to name a few—that create the conditions in which violence thrives. From Michael Douglas who half-jokingly worried about how his role might make him seem gay (message: It’s not OK to be gay, folks) to the complete lack of women represented in the nominations for writing or directing (message: Women aren’t good at this job).

It’s a reminder that women and girls are receiving negative messages everyday that objectify and degrade us. They limit us and wear us down. And they influence and train men and boys to disrespect women.

But there are some good things happening out there in media-land! Amy Poehler (yes, I maybe have a huge crush on her) has a series of Ask Amy clips that send great messages to girls. The folks that brought you the documentary Miss Representation are regularly calling out the media when it behaves badly with their #NotBuyingIt campaign. And check out this PSA from the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in the Media. Speak out about the deluge of negative images the media sends us. We don’t have to buy it!

Photo by VIUDeepBay

Photo by VIUDeepBay

Last summer was the fourth year my family spent a weekend at Jewish family camp. It’s a great experience that I look forward to. Campfires, talent show, crafts, folk dancing, learning and building community, all on the shores of Puget Sound.

Last year was all those great things once again. But I also had an unsettling experience that I’ve been thinking about since. One of my boys had a tough time in the kids program. He is a sensitive kid, and the stress and stimulation of camp was more than he could handle. He was agitated and needed help to calm down. The children’s program director—who was also a teacher at a local synagogue’s religious school—stepped in.

The way he handled the situation was spectacularly unhelpful. It was like a textbook of what not to do to de-escalate a kid. Over several conversations, his responses ranged from inappropriate to absurd. He ranted about being in charge. He was self-absorbed. He warned my kindergartner not to “start fights he couldn’t finish.” It quickly became clear to me he did not have the skill or emotional maturity for the job he was doing. I wondered how he could have kept his job as a religious school teacher if this was how he handled conflict with kids and parents.

I recently learned that this program director, Lydia Katz (pronounced L’Dee-ah), is in prison on child molestation charges. He admitted to having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl he taught in religious school. According to news reports, the sexual abuse went on the same summer he spent with us at camp.

When I heard the news I was shocked but not surprised. I started rethinking what I saw and didn’t see, what I did and what I should have done.

The charging papers described Lydia as a “dynamic and charismatic individual who is able to easily engage with youth.” One way of seeing him was as flamboyant, fun, youthful, outside the box. Another was as narcissistic, immature, manipulative.

Sometimes we do exactly the wrong things to protect our kids from exactly the wrong people. A friend’s preschooler came home recently from a “safety” presentation convinced that “strangers will murder you, your sister, your parents, and your dog.”

Telling kids to fear all strangers is a useless message. And the flip side of that message is downright dangerous: you can trust all adults who you “know.” It is not that trusted adults are likely to be abusers, but abusers absolutely are likely to be trusted adults. (90% of teens who are sexually assaulted are hurt by someone they know. That number is even higher for younger victims.)

The world where only strangers and monsters are unsafe is a fantasy. As much as I may wish I could teach my kids a simple rule that would keep them safe, in the real world they need to develop independent judgment about who to trust. I try to talk to them about the complex process I use to gauge whether someone is safe or trustworthy. I explain why I decided to open the door for this stranger, but not another. Why I chose this neighbor’s house as the place they should go if they need help. When I will talk with someone on the street, and when I just keep walking. Even as young kids, they have to make these decisions all the time, and I want us to practice together.

Now we have the chance to reflect and practice as a community. I’m sure I was not the only one who noticed Lydia was immature and had terrible boundaries. What did we think that meant at the time? What do we see now, with the clarity of hindsight?

This is not about assigning blame. This is gut check practice.

It takes practice—even as an adult—in part because our gut reactions are not pure. We all internalize a lot of garbage that can be hard to filter out. My oldest son once wanted to know, “is it racist if I don’t like someone who’s African American?” My first answer was no—assuming you’re not rejecting a person because of their race, you can dislike whoever you want without being racist. Of course that is true, but I told him he also needs to know this: racism can gum up the works of your intuition. Unconscious negative messages can interfere with your gut feeling about the person in front of you. You can develop strong and reliable intuition by being aware of your feelings and talking about them.

Lydia is a mixed race, Black and Jewish, gender bending young man with a large personality and a big dramatic streak. Some of the news coverage made it sound like that was reason enough to be suspicious of him. But being uncomfortable is not enough to identify a problem. You have to figure out if you are uncomfortable for the right reasons. Racism and homophobia can serve as dazzle camouflage—a cloud of confusion that an abuser can use to hide in plain sight.

It is important for kids to know that the adults in this situation know exactly what happened, without euphemisms or ambiguity. Being confused leaves too much room for excuses, minimizing, and victim blaming.

I will tell my kids this: Lydia did not deserve the trust he was given. He had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. He sent her “romantic” messages. He used the trust he had as her teacher to his own advantage. He put his own desires ahead of his responsibility not to hurt her. He knew it was wrong and he knew it was illegal. He lied about it and he asked her mother to keep it secret. If you had a feeling that Lydia was not okay, you were right. That gut feeling was right. Remember what that felt like, and practice trusting that feeling. Let’s talk about what you can do when you have that feeling again.

Recently, my friend’s 9-year-old son came home sad and confused. He had gone to the park with some boys he did not know well.tough-boys

After tearing a wooden fence apart, throwing rocks at a squirrel, and announcing to one of the younger boys that his mother was a slut, the older boys turned on M. They asked him if he “had a slut.” When he asked what this meant, they told him a slut was a “girl to f**k.” He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and he got scared. As he told his mother later “I got the feeling if I didn’t answer right, they would hurt me.”

Being one of the boys in that moment meant being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability. The price for not participating in that masculinity is the threat of violence. Like M, boys every day must ask themselves, “What if all that negative, destructive energy pivots from the small animal, the mom, or girls in general to ME?” Better to agree and keep it directed outward, right? Even if it means meekly agreeing that yes, your mom is a slut, before you even really know what that means or how you feel about it.

Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism. Too often, boys learn that they must be dominating, unfeeling, tough, and defined in opposition to girls to be accepted. This results in a form of masculinity that pretends to be secure and strong, but is in reality tenuous and fragile. Fragile things have to be protected, shored up, and reinforced. And that results in a great deal of pain, since it requires targets (girls, sluts, sissies, fags) to define oneself against and put down in order to be “one of the boys.”

The stakes are high: participate or risk humiliation, intimidation, or becoming one of those targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the consequence of coming up short being bullied or violence.

So what happened to M? He told the boys he had to get home. He had the presence of mind to know that what was happening wasn’t okay, and he didn’t like it. He had the security to realize these boys’ friendship was not worth the compromises to his own integrity that would be required to seal it. And he knew that at home, he would be accepted, listened to, and protected.

I wish we could all feel that safe and protected in our homes, and in our bodies, however they are gendered. I would like M and all those boys to feel that they are wonderful, and that they are enough, just as they are. That they do not need to “man up.”* When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to this rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people—like my friend’s son.

*explicit language

What do you see in this “Roots of Love” trailer, a short documentary on Sikh men?

I see pride, joy, and a clear statement of their vibrant cultural identity. I also see the struggle of this identity in a world of discrimination and hate crimes.

I am angry and sad about the hate-based killings of Sikhs in a gurdwara in Wisconsin. Many have been impacted by post 9/11 racism, and many continue to spread awareness and education in an effort to end the hatred. Struggling to find some meaning in all of this, I found some clarity and patience by reading this post, proposing that the way to address the “need for broader awareness about Sikh identity and belief” is simple. “Ask any Sikh.”

I attended Saturday’s Solidarity Vigil and was once again reminded of the importance of engaging in conversation. I am ever so certain that we need to unite to end racism and xenophobia by fully participating in each others’ lives. As I’ve said before:  “uniting to protect each others’ rights does not threaten or diminish our own.”

They told us in law school that we the people drive how laws are shaped. For some of us, this notion does not feel real, and so we distance ourselves from political debates on things like violence against women and marriage equality. But these aren’t just political issues. They are connected to our everyday life and to each other.

I was talking to a family member about how frustrating it is that my mother is pressuring me to marry an Indian man. After a lengthy conversation, her response in ‘my support’ was that she doesn’t care who her daughter marries, as long as she marries a man. Later she said she would accept and love me even if I were single or gay. I would have thought that was a very progressive thing to say―about a decade ago―and would have probably said something similar myself. Now I see the sexism, racism, and homophobia in this snippet.

I am very clear that it is through conversations with friends and family that we can make a difference. Even when it doesn’t seem like I am getting through to them, I keep the conversations going. I tell my family that although I know that my getting married is important to them, I am not willing to do it any cost. I tell them about all of my friends: single, married, gay, straight. I refuse to choose one segment of my life over another. And the more of us who keep having these honest conversations, the more change we’ll see in the national dialogue as well.

My introduction to the domestic violence movement was as a volunteer in a battered women’s shelter. It was founded in 1976, just a few years after the first battered women’s shelter in the U.S. It was a product of its time. We were explicit about our feminist politics. We saw our work as part of a larger agenda for justice that took on patriarchal power, institutional racism and state violence, and all forms of oppression and domination.

The shelter itself was a hundred-year-old house, with every available nook and cranny made into space for another bunk bed or more towels or canned food. We were scrappy and resourceful. We didn’t turn anyone away.

On the other hand, it didn’t occur to me back then to think about how our physical space set up survivors to have very limited control over their lives day in and day out. Multiple stressed-out families sharing bedrooms, too few bathrooms, and one small kitchen inevitably led to conflict, and then rules intended to manage the conflict, and then conflict over the rules. Not exactly a recipe for liberation.

Advocates in Washington State have been thinking about how to change shelter for the better. The result? Building Dignity: Design Strategies for Domestic Violence Shelter, a web-based tool-kit for making shelter spaces that help support our mission.

For me, watching this work unfold was a kind of revelation. The kind where you hear an idea for the first time and it instantly seems completely obvious. Shelter is a life-saving refuge. But our hope and vision has always been that shelter is more than a place for women to flee from danger. It is also a launching pad into a life after abuse. A place to restore dignity, reclaim choices, and rebuild relationships that have been eroded by violence. Building Dignity is chock full of creative and practical ideas to make this happen.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. day, racial justice and equality … and then I came across the video “S*!t White Girls Say … to Black Girls.” Not everyone is amused, but the fact is it went viral. Franchesca Ramsey had her experiences to make this video and said that even impacting one person made it worth it.

This video resonated with me because I have my own collection of things people say to me. For example, when I get asked if I’m from India, I usually answer “I’m from Zambia.” Then, I hear things like “Wow, you’re black?” (an attorney) OR “My best friend in college was from India.” (a well-traveled person) OR “Oh, so you’re a Zamboni-an.” (a person of color).

Women are often judged or undermined because of what they said, what they drank, or what they may be wearing. Similarly, survivors of domestic and sexual violence have heard “why don’t you just leave?”. It’s just s*!t people say … even some well-intentioned people. It’s me, it’s you, and yeah, it’s the people you hang out with.

So be informed, use your own strategy to educate yourself and others. And be willing to be educated, whether it’s acknowledging a thoughtless remark or asking good questions about what you don’t know.

Last month, I celebrated along with 53% of Americans when New York became the 6th state to legalize gay marriage. But while I cheered the happy gay couples, another part of my brain is ambivalent about the victory. After all, the institution of marriage has a sordid history—from sexist wedding rituals to cultural and legal ties that keep women trapped with abusers. And getting married means more housework for women and less for men.

At the same time, marriage brings benefits that LGBT folks have been denied. And full access to marriage (and divorce) removes one strand from the web of homophobia, sexism, and racism that batterers can use to control their partners. For example:

  • When a couple’s relationship is publically acknowledged and celebrated, homophobia loses its power to isolate LGBT people from the support of their family and friends. This means they have more help—both to have great relationships and when violence happens.
  • We know that child custody issues are a major barrier to leaving an abuser. And for LGBT parents, marriage means that the non-biological parent is more likely to have their parental rights recognized by family courts, schools, and health care providers.

Right wing rhetoric claims that the mere act of gay couples saying “I do” is enough to upend the institution of marriage. If only radical social change was that simple! I’m rooting for a day when we achieve marriage equality and much more—economic justice for women; healthy, equitable relationships for everyone; and public policies that support all families, married or not.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,226 other followers