call to action, Commentary, justice, opinion, personal history, politics, race, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized

The Art of Knowing What You Don’t Know: Cultural Intelligence, Tamir Rice and Hope for a More Enlightened 2016

The first time I heard the term “Cultural Intelligence” was in a church basement. The topic under discussion was an update on the redesign of Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health division; the person updating us was describing an all-too-familiar and depressing reality:

The group doing the  redesign work is comprised of mostly white, upper middle class, suburban people who know, socialize and interact with other mostly white, upper middle class suburbanites. These well-meaning people are creating policies and procedures that will affect mostly black, poor, urban people whose realities are very different. Worse, they have no chance to understand that they doesn’t understand, because people with the ability to effectively reality check those committee members (people who are, were, know, socialize and/or interact with mostly black, poor urban people) have virtually no voice at the table.

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When I saw this painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum yesterday, I knew it was the image I wanted to go with this post. Tamir Rice was already in my mind, and he will never be as old as the young man in this painting. It’s called St. Dionysus; the artist’s name is Kehinde Wiley. Check out more of his work at http://www.kehindewiley.com

Or, to put it another way, there is one person of color on the board. There used to be two, but one took a job that meant having to leave the board.

One thing the two people of color were able to achieve was getting the County to pay for Cultural Intelligence training for Human Service workers. Last month, offered a seat at one of the trainings, I jumped at the chance. We had to take a pre-workshop assessment. Our scores would be given to us at the training.

I wondered what mine would look like. A few years ago, I took one of Harvard’s Project Implicit tests. I wasn’t surprised to pull a score showing an automatic preference toward white over black faces.

Cultural intelligence measures one’s ability to work and relate across all cultures. When we got our scores, my “CQ” was higher than I had expected. So, just for the heck of it, I went home and retook the Project Implicit test. My automatic preference had disappeared. That I’d had it wasn’t a surprise. That it’s gone isn’t surprising, either.

As a white lady of a certain age, my first experience with people of color occurred before I understood anything about what color was. Lily Mae Madden cleaned our house once a week and sometimes took care of my sister and me when I was way too little to know anything other than that Lily Mae wasn’t scary like my mom and I loved her. She was big and soft and kind. Her husband, Sam was tall, slender and as kind as his wife. My sister and I adored them.

By the time I was in kindergarten, they had passed out of our lives. There were no black children in my class. Or my school (which went to sixth grade). Or my neighborhood. There were no black characters on my TV screen (“I Spy” came on after my bedtime), until “Julia” came out in 1969.

In junior high and high school, things changed some. My urban public high school had no ruling class. Race differences were a reality but not an issue. White and black kids hung out together during the day, and maybe some socialized outside of school. All the girls in my crowd were white, though none of us thought about it in those terms.

In college, I was a fish out of water. It was my first real brush with class differences, although I was too green to realize it. At my small, private liberal arts school, most of the students had come from families with way more money than mine and many had gone to private boarding schools. The norm was to spend junior year somewhere else. My “somewhere else” was Israel.

The program was through the Reform movement, a year on the same kibbutz outside of Jerusalem. Professors came to us, and our single summer class was three hours of Hebrew instruction, six days a week. I wanted to learn Arabic, too. Attempts to connect with anyone who could help me find a class or teacher were quickly quashed. (“What do you want to do that for? You don’t want to do that.”) I was a good sheep, out of my element and with enough strange things to handle. I didn’t push things with the authorities.

I still tried, though, and achieved a small victory.

My aunt, in Minnesota, had a friend there whose cousins lived in Acco, a lovely city in Northern Israel. The Shaabi family’s Roman-era house was a cavernous stone structure just across from the sea wall along the Mediterranean. I didn’t learn much Arabic. But I was able to experience an aspect of Israeli culture I wouldn’t have otherwise. The experience taught me a lot about race relations at home. In Israel, it was the secular Jews, the religious Jews and the Arabs living separate lives in shared space. Here, black and white people mostly live separate lives in shared space.

I was 30 when my first marriage ended and my quest to find a family-supporting job led me to a racially mixed nonprofit agency where people socialized outside of work. The result was my first experience walking or driving down a street and wondering, instead of being a little uncomfortable and scared, whether the non-white person coming toward me was someone I knew.

These days, everybody I pass on the street looks like someone I might know and it feels weird to be in a roomful of people where everyone is the same color as I am.

I don’t know how to make that the reality for more of us. I wish I did.

Because it’s the only real way we can stop living in a country where police officers who look like me won’t be able to pick off a 12-year-old black kid with a toy gun and get a free pass from a grand jury. Tamir Rice’s family deserves better. The same goes for Trayvon Martin’s, Deontre Hamilton’s, Sandra Bland’s, Laquan McDonald’s and Walter Scott’s.

May 2016 be a safer place for all of us.

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call to action, Central Wisconisn, community history, education, Family story, Judaism, justice, kindness, love, Media, opinion, personal history, race, religion, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized

Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

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Helen and me. I was so happy to get to see her, and I think she was happy to see me, too. Maybe even happier than she would have been to see Donald Trump. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she was happier to see me.)

Donald J. Trump is a man his supporters would avoid like gay pride parades if he were saying the things he says while unshaven and pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

But he wears bespoke suits and lives and works in buildings with his name on them. So instead of being called out for what he is – the emperor with no clothes  – his rants are miraculously elevated to the level of worthy discourse. It would be lovely to live in a world where his call to bar Muslims from entering the US would signify the beginning of his being exiled from public life. Sadly, I know better.

I don’t often put words in the mouths of dead people. But I’m pretty sure that Helen Sperling, who died last week at the age of 95, would have excoriated Mr. Naked Emperor.

Helen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. I don’t remember not knowing her. But until a Sunday School morning when I was 12 and 60 or so of us sat on the floor in the Edelstein Room at our synagogue while Helen sat on a chair and told us her story, I only knew her as Paul and Franny’s mother.

Helen was the mother with the musical laugh and long hair worn in a braid down her back. My mother had short hair and a short fuse. I wanted the mother with the musical laugh and long hair. I loved being at the Sperlings’ house. I spent a lot of time there because Paul was one of my best friends until we turned 5. His sister Franny was two years older. She was beautiful and way too sophisticated to hang out with four-year-olds.

One day, which I only can tell you about because it became the stuff of legend for the mothers involved, Helen served a lunch that consisted of pretty much none of my preferred menu items. (In Helen’s defense, I was a pretty strange eater. I didn’t like peanut butter. I didn’t like jelly. I didn’t like tomato sauce. I didn’t like sweet things.)

But I had been taught to be polite, and to be a good guest. Good guests did not ask for food that wasn’t already on the table. Good guests did not say “I don’t like that!”

So, when Helen called Paul and me into the kitchen for lunch and sat us down, I evidently surveyed the repast and looked up at Helen.

“These,” I said, eyeing up the contents of one of the serving plates, “are the friendliest cucumbers I’ve ever seen.”

I know that Helen must have laughed and laughed in that moment, because she and my mother both laughed every time one (or both) of them recalled it – right up to last year, when I was in Utica for my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and had time either to go to the cemetery and see my dad or go hang out with Helen, who was 94.

I called Franny to make sure Helen was up for visitors. Sadly, Paul and I never re-established our pre-kindergarten bond (there’s always hope, and we do have our memories), but when I was 15 and Franny 17, we got close. Ten years ago, we reconnected. Aside from being a generally fabulous human being, she is is also an amazing aerialist, and my hero and inspiration in all things flying.

Helen was as full of life and as feisty as ever. That she needed oxygen to breathe and wasn’t so good at getting out of a chair did absolutely nothing to diminish her vivacity and power.

She exclaimed over the cream puff I had brought for her (“My favorite! How did you know?” What I didn’t say: “Because Franny told me when I called her to see if you’d be up for a visit.”) and lamented that she didn’t have anything to serve. I’d bought frozen fish sticks; Helen was thrilled to let me use her oven.

We yakked like girlfriends. I told her about my experiences as a reporter in Central Wisconsin, where a Holocaust denier had taken possession of a good deal of Public Square real estate. The denier used local media to broadcast her message, got herself invited to an eighth grade classroom to talk to students, and even arranged for a public talk at the local two-year university center. I spent three years there, I told Helen, and was most proud of two things I’d done. One was connecting a local coffee shop to Colectivo, a Milwaukee-based coffee roasting company, making it possible to get a great cup of coffee in the (relative) middle of nowhere. The other was getting a Holocaust survivor to come to talk to those eighth graders, and to give a public talk at the university center.

We talked about getting old and dying. She was ready, but as long as she could, she said, she would tell her story. I asked her if she’d recorded it.

“Yes,” she said, “I spoke with the Spielberg Foundation. (The disc is) in a vault, because until I’m dead, I want people to hear it directly from me.”

She told me about the bracelets she gave every attendee at the end of every talk. Blue, and engraved with the words, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander.”

“I don’t have any here,” she said. Then, she remembered that she was wearing one. She took it off and gave it to me.

Helen was a staunch supporter of Israel. She also loved the United States, and the best of what both countries aim to be and represent.

There is no way she would have stood by while a well-dressed, charismatic political wannabe spouted religious hatred. She knew exactly where that led. Which is why she spent her life doing everything in her power to make sure no one would ever have to go there again.

Note: Even though Helen didn’t want any video of her telling her story while she was alive, I did find one – on one of her many visits to Union College, her talk was videotaped. Click here to see it. 

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beekeeping, Commentary, Family story, food, justice, lifestyle, love, personal history, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized

Dear Non-terrorist Muslims & White Men; Dear Impending Grandson: A pair of open letters

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If a man and a water buffalo can be friends, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Dear Muslims who are terrified of being collateral damage because of yesterday and white men who are terrified of being collateral damage because of all the shootings and massacres.

I do not think all of you are terrorists.

Sincerely:

Amy

PS I still think all the legislators who are worshipping at the feet of Wayne LaPierre  are spineless, wormy cowards.

 

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See that ukulele, Grandson? When you can sit up and hold things, I am going to start teaching you how to play. Also, this is a picture of me engaging in behavior that caused our governor to compare me to an ISIS terrorist. Just so you know. Your Bubby isn’t really fierce, but somebody thinks she is…..

 

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Butterfly ranching, Grandson. It’s another one of the great things we’re going to do together!

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And we will put together jigsaw puzzles, because it’s really fun.

Dear Impending Grandson:

While I am looking forward to meeting you, I’m wondering if you might want to reconsider your upcoming entrance to a world in which anyone seems to be able to get an assault weapon. While this is scary, what is really scary is that when a white man uses an assault weapon to mow down a bunch of people, he gets carted off to jail and is even, sometimes, treated to a hamburger while in custody.

This does not seem to be the case with black and/or brown people, who too often are shot first, and turn out to have had no weapons (or to have merely been playing with toy weapons) later. This is why, black, white or brown, you and your future cousins will never get a toy gun  – at least not from me.

As is the case with every other grandmother I have ever known, I am going to do everything possible to ensure that you are never in a position where some zealot with a gun (in uniform, in jeans, in underwear, in a wetsuit, in whatever) decides to shoot you first and ask questions later.

We have made a mess, and I am deeply sorry. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have a little girl who is going to be a couple of weeks older than you are. Her parents have pledged to throw a lot of money  at making the world a better place for her, and, I hope, for the rest of her peers.

Still, Grandson, you and I are going to do some great stuff together. Until you gain a little weight and grow a few teeth, you’ll be a captive audience. I plan to talk, read and sing to you (sometimes with and sometimes without guitar and/or ukulele accompaniment). I will play you many instruments and tell you stories. Some will be made up just for you. Some will be stories I told your mother and aunts when they were small. Some will be new.

When you are bigger, we will read together and I will teach you how to play the ukulele and the guitar and the cello and the piano. We will bake bread and make French Toast. I will help you become a monarch butterfly rancher and maybe even a beekeeper. We will go in-line skating at the Lakefront.

You will teach me things, too, because you are going to be brilliant and interesting.

Anyway, I’m sorry about the mess of a world in which you’re about to make an entrance. I’m going to do everything I can to make life easier for your mom, and for you.

Love:

Your Bubby

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