Being brave, brave, brave.

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”

Bryan Stevenson Just Mercy

I originally posted this on my old blog in July 2018.

I recently finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and watching the incredible documentary 13th. This book and documentary rocked me to my core. Incredibly powerful. Incredibly thought-provoking. Incredibly tragic.

One of the first things I do when I’m so dramatically affected by an experience is try to figure out the root cause. After a few weeks of reflecting on my personal response, I recognize now that the reaction was due to the narrative about “bad guys” I’d been told growing up. You do a bad thing, you go to jail. If you didn’t do the bad thing, your talented Matlock-like lawyer will get you off. If you’re in jail, you deserve to be there. If you’re in jail, you don’t deserve to be treated like us “normal, non-criminals,” you sacrificed that right when you committed the crime you definitely committed. If people could just follow the rules, they wouldn’t end up in jail and if you do, it’s your own damn fault so stop complaining about your punishment. Any of you grow up with that same narrative?

I’m not going to summarize all of the information in either the book or the documentary because there is so much in both that would be diminished by trying to distill those points into a single blog post. Instead, I want to focus on a few points that really stuck with me and broke my heart and lit a fire in me. I think I may zero in on a few of the major issues that really resonated with me in future posts.

In both Just Mercy and 13th, the academics interviewed outline four institutions that have shaped the US’s approach to race and justice – slavery, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. So many white people are under the impression that once the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, all of our racial struggles had been addressed and we could move on (I would also argue that many of us, including me, also believed the same with the election of Barack Obama in 2008).

What has been very helpful to me in understanding how systemic racism plays out is the explanation in Just Mercy that once lynching became less appealing/popular, those violent energies were redirected into our justice system. It was a shift from “illegal terror to legal terror.” In the 1970’s, the era of mass incarceration began. The phrase “war on crime” became a dog whistle for blacks, gays, and women protestors. This eventually evolved into the war on drugs, which made the issue of drug addiction/dependency a crime issue rather than a public health issue. While watching this part, I couldn’t help but think of the pieces I’ve read lately about how differently the current opioid epidemic in suburban areas is being treated than crack use in urban areas in the 1990’s. It’s not a coincidence – it’s yet another example of how issues are treated differently based on the affected population’s race.

Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened every ten days in the United States. Between 1970 and 2014, the prison population exploded from 360,000 to 2.3 million. Incarceration became the answer to everything – health care problems like drug addiction, poverty, behavioral disorders, mental disability and immigration. Many of the people filling these prisons were people of color and poor people. One of Bryan Stevenson’s most compelling arguments is our current justice system is “a system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability.” He supports this argument with so many stories of people who have ended up in prison because they lacked any sort of competent legal counsel. They couldn’t afford their own lawyer and they were depending on the state. They were coerced into accepting plea bargains for crimes they didn’t commit. They were told if they didn’t accept the plea, and this went to trial, they would be found guilty and their punishment would be even greater than the plea was offering. They suffer from mental health or behavioral disorders. They are children.

Poor and urban neighborhoods are more heavily policed than their suburban counterparts. As a result, people living there have an increased likelihood of having multiple encounters with police, an increased likelihood of being arrested for petty crimes, crimes which more affluent children engage in with impunity. People who think poor/urban kids are doing worse things than rich kids are naive and need to work on unpacking the bias in that narrative. I know plenty of white and rich kids who have done many things that should have landed them with some jail time. But they got to grow up. And now that they’re adults and their decision making parts of their brain have developed, they realize how stupid they were and don’t keep acting that way. In Just Mercy, Bryan focuses much of his energy on helping what he calls “adolescent lifers,” those kids who committed crimes as teenagers but were tried, convicted, and sentenced as adults to life in prison, He points out they “had matured into adults who were much more thoughtful and reflective.” Yet, that thoughtfulness and reflection is happening behind bars, with no intention or plan for them to ever be able to return to civil society.

At the end of Just Mercy, Bryan asks a heartbreaking question that I’m pretty sure caused my ugly crying to begin: “Why do we want to kill all of the broken people? What is wrong with us that we think a thing like that can be right?”

This question has stuck with me for the past two weeks since I finished his book and watched 13th. This post is far from my best writing because I’m still muddling through and processing the incredible load of information both resources provided me. Up next, I’ll be reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I expect it will give me even more to muddle through and process and will generate a good deal more public reflection to share with anyone reading this.

I’ll end this post with one of my favorite parts of Just Mercy, Bryan had been invited to chat with some incredible ladies, including Rosa Parks and Ms. Carr (the architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts). Rosa asked Bryan what he was working on and after explaining his work, she responded by saying “Oooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” To which Ms. Carr replied “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”

Here’s to hoping that more of us can be “brave, brave, brave” to do the work that must be done.

Learning

I get angry about things, then go on and work.

Toni Morrison

A few weeks ago, a tweet from an educator in the UK blew up. It featured a list of almost all white folks who were deemed experts in their fields. When the list-maker was questioned about the demographics of his list, all kinds of white fragility showed up. It was ugly. “This was everyone who was most qualified…I don’t see color…why don’t you have any redheads…here come the snowflakes…”

This got me reflecting on how my personal list of “must follows” has evolved over my 2.5 years of being active on Twitter. Initially, I fell for the shallow platitudes that seemed to be everywhere. These shallow platitudes filled me with a sense of “yes, I’m doing the right work” and absolutely did not push me to reflect on anything remotely deep. They certainly didn’t push me to think about holes in my history education, prisons, and being a social justice activist from my position as a classroom teacher. They were an echo chamber of vacuous nonsense.

I always go back to that room at Columbia University in March 2017 when Cornelius Minor first explained individual and systemic racism to me. I started paying closer attention to he was retweeting, following, and engaging with on Twitter. One of the many benefits of Twitter, it’s made for lurking.

Through my lurking, I found educators who held up mirrors, who opened windows, who stopped allowing me to tell myself I was a good white person and go on with my status quo non-disruptive self, who, through my inaction, only served to uphold white supremacy.

Here’s my list. The title of my list is “when I see this person has a thread going, I will always read every bit of that thread.” This is certainly not meant to be an exhaustive list. This is a list for my “Intended Audience” to get started with the unlearning and relearning process we white folks so desperately need to get going with.

Cornelius Minor – @misterminor

Val Brown – @ValeriaBrownEdu & @ClearTheAirEdu

Kelly Wickham Hurst @mochamomma

Clint Smith III @ClintSmithIII

Christie Nold @ChristieNold

Nate @thel0rdbyr0n

Tricia Ebarvia @triciaebarvia

Julia Torres @juliaerin80

Marian Dingle @dingleteach

Dr. Debbie Reese @debreese

So, click that follow button for these folks. Pay attention. Reflect. And when you start to feel uncomfortable, rather than acting like a typical fragile white person, lean into that discomfort to see what it can teach you.

Comfort

“Question what looks like unity at first glance.

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

I am not someone who really likes being read aloud to but I’ve discovered I really love Audible especially when the book is read aloud by the author. I’ve read or listened to more books this summer than I thought I’d be able to thanks to this discovery and my conscious effort to add more leisure walking to my life (managing stress levels). I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me a few weeks ago and this week finished listening to I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. These books, along with the hard copy reading I’ve done: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and So You Want to Talk about Race, and my weekly podcast obsession Pod Save the People have gotten me thinking a lot about the interactions I’m hoping to have this school year with my colleagues and the ensuing knot that’s growing in my stomach.

Oddly enough, that knot isn’t so much about my fear of conflict and making people uncomfortable. I’ve started growing quite the backbone and courage for pushing back and planting seeds of change when I can. I thank Christie Nold for modeling how a white person should be doing this on a daily basis (@ChristieNold on Twitter). While I tend to shy away from awkwardness and difficulty, that’s not what I’m getting anxious about. I’m more getting anxious about how shallow and self-serving conversations about race (esp among self-proclaimed progressive whites) tend to be.

In my experience, conversations that are trying to get people to deeply reflect on their identities and how those identities interact with our white supremacist society to lead to inequities, often fall short. They aren’t long enough, they aren’t truthful enough (skirting around issues rather than naming the issues head on), the spaces lack trust (for a variety of reasons), and people are able to excuse themselves as not being the “bad people” who are obviously perpetuating these problems. Ultimately, they fall short because of everything outlined in Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility.

Other times, white people leave these experiences feeling validated and comfortable, playing this narrative in their minds “See, I’m a woke white person. I’m set.” I have come to believe that if, as a white person, you leave a conversation about race feeling validated and comfortable, you didn’t do it right. Maybe you can feel validated that you’ve started doing the right work, you’ve started having the right conversations, you’re reading the right books, following the right people. You shouldn’t, however, feel finished. Ever. Antiracist work is the work of a lifetime.

Here’s to a school year filled with true and honest conversations and reflections that spur us to move from asking the question “am I racist?” to “how am I racist and what am I going to do about it?” (credit to Robin DiAngelo for that shift in questioning).

My Intended Audience

Originally posted to my old platform on June 22, 2019. Reposting it here to set the stage for my next post.

Oh man…sweet summer time. I’m so proud of myself this year – my “to do” list is the shortest it’s ever been and my reading pile is the most realistic it’s ever been. Perhaps it’s because this is the first summer I won’t have daycare and it’s going to be “stay at home mommy” time with my almost 6 and 4 year old. It might also be that I recognize the need to chill the freak out a bit when I have a chance. This was the first official week of break but I had several meetings and professional development so next week it’s on.

Speaking of the PD, I had the opportunity to participate in FCPS’ Summer Literacy Symposium (SLS) aka THE BEST PD FAIRFAX HAS TO OFFER! I’ve been able to participate in three of the five that have been offered since 2014 and each opportunity exceeded every expectation and inspired me in new and unexpected ways. It was at SLS in 2016 that I first identified myself as a writer. This time around, we participated in a writing workshop as writers of nonfiction. We were able to choose a topic that was important to us and start writing a piece, experiencing all that a student might experience in the same setting. When I was listing my potential topics I know a lot about that I could and want to teach others, I included swimming, gel pens, Google Drive, and racism. Initially, I was going to go with the “safer” topic of Drive  but we were challenged to think of something that means a lot to us. While I do love Google Drive, I knew that what I really wanted to write about was race. I was scared, though, about bringing something so serious into the room and my writing partner being like “wtf?” when we conferred with each other.

And that brings me to the topic of this blog post (and one on which I plan to focus for a while): white solidarity (for more: read this awesome post about one white male educator’s reflection: https://medium.com/@blogsbe/breaking-free-of-white-solidarity-43c887b57cf6 ). White solidarity is the phenomenon in which we prioritize white comfort over telling the truth, allowing racism to continue undisturbed. This is something I’ve been reflecting on since attending the Antiracist Book Festival in April. Why do I stay quiet, why do I get flustered, why I can’t seem to have a hard conversation with someone who hasn’t yet chosen (privilege alert) to accept what is true about systemic racism and the history of the United States? I’ve also been thinking about who my true audience for writing pieces like this is. One of our facilitators (shout out to Grace Choi!) was conferring with me and asked who my audience was for this “All about White Solidarity” book. This got me thinking about something DeRay McKesson talked about in his session – he shared with us that he’s often asked how he’s reaching across the aisle. His response is that he’s not trying to. Rather, he’s focused on “preaching to the choir” and that as “choir director” it’s his job to help the members of the choir use their voices in ways they didn’t know how. I’ve shared this analogy many times in the two months since the festival and it has been swimming around in my brain since.

Who am I trying to reach? I’m reaching out to the person who hears someone mention how they want to live in an area with “good schools” and cringe because they know what’s being said without actually saying it; the person who knows it’s not about simply working harder to get by in this country and the “personal choices” you make, but isn’t sure of the exact historical reasons why that won’t work for many people; the person who knows the name of the Washington DC football team is racist but isn’t sure how to navigate that; the person who recognizes they have nothing real to fear about a traffic stop in the same way that others do; the person who watched what happened in Charlottesville two years ago and had no idea that this could still happen in this country. I’m reaching out to the person who knows that things can be better and is ready to get over his/her own white fragility and move from asking “am I racist” to “how am I racist?” (Robin DiAngelo at the Antiracist Book Festival).

Fierce Conversations talks about how while many of us fear the awkward conversation, what we should really fear is the missed conversation. I’m working through how I enter the conversation and what I know how to say. I’ve thought about how I’ve been spending the past three years learning an entirely new language. As a new antiracist language learner, I might be able to prepare my own “opening remarks” but I really struggle with the follow up. How do I respond adequately and coherently to what I know to be the common fragile responses? I don’t know, yet, but I’m practicing, mostly to myself but also with others who I know are in a similar place as I am.

My All About book from SLS is entitled “For My White Friends: Having the conversations we need to be having so our country can be what it says it is…” Turns out the writing partner I was paired up with couldn’t have been better for this topic. She and I were only able to talk for maybe 20 minutes of the 1.5 days together but those 20 minutes were meaningful and deep. She shared with me this is something she’s trying to learn more about and we shared what we’ve both started doing to learn. When I told her I had a blog, she wanted to know how she could find it. She shared that White Fragility has been sitting in her room for a few months and she knows she needs to get to reading. These are the moments that I think can ultimately have a big impact. These moments when seeds can be planted in receptive minds to think about and come back to and seek out opportunities to learn more.

I don’t have specific answers YET for addressing the moments when we find ourselves prioritizing our own comfort and the comfort of our white peers, avoiding the potentially awkward conversation. I think what I’m trying more is asking someone to “tell me more about…” and “help me understand..”

When I finished Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy 28-day workbook, one of the commitments I made was to start sharing more of my public work in spaces like Instagram and Facebook, where most of the people I’m connected to are white and where I might be able to plant some more seeds and call more people in to this work.

Thank you for reading!

Intentions & Vocabulary

“Good intention is the hall pass through history.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I have always been and will always be an avid reader. When I was a kid, I had six or seven books going at a time; all were strategically placed in different locations in my life so I’d never find myself without something to read. Once on a road trip from Oklahoma to Michigan, I brought a stack of books about two feet tall with me. My mom questioned the size of the stack and I explained that there was no way I could possibly risk running out of things to read on such a long trip. I recently accused my mom of not reading to me as a kid – I can’t remember her or my dad reading books to me at bedtime. Her response to that accusation? “Well, DEAR, as soon as you could do it yourself, you refused to let anyone do it for you.” I have a four year old in my life who will probably be similarly inclined.

In that stash of six to seven books, one would almost always be from the Little House on the Prairie series. I literally read the covers off my mom’s collection of those books. I dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder for Halloween one year. I lived for watching the shows during summer mornings (or sick days) when we didn’t have school or swim practice. I gave copies of those books to friends when they had children. Flash forward to last summer. Wilder’s name was in the spotlight when the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. I had not given a single thought EVER to the problematic portrayals of indigenous or black people in her books until reading the work of Debbie Reese (you can find her post about the award here ). Debbie Reese established American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) in 2006 to “provide critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.” I follow her on Twitter and I am incredibly grateful for her work to bring attention and urgency to these issues. I have learned so much.

Reading more of Debbie’s work got me thinking, once again, how incomplete my education of the history of this country is and how much I’ve taken for granted as a white, middle class, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied woman (note – only one of those labels is considered outside of the norm). I did well in my history classes in middle and high school because I was great at memorizing definitions and answering questions at the end of the chapter. I was never, not once, challenged to think about the historical perspectives I was presented with as being incomplete. I’m currently reading Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Dr. Ibram X Kendi along with one of my friends. Our consistent reaction to every chapter we’ve read thus far has been “how the &*^% am I just now learning this?”

Two of those definitions from high school I could recite off the top of my head were for “manifest destiny” and the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” I could tell you that manifest destiny was the belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. I could tell you that the Three-Fifths Compromise said that in counting a state’s population to determine representation, a slave would be counted as 3/5 of a whole person. But seriously, never once did I have a teacher stop and be like “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS BS?” Or even just stop and say “let’s think about this some more….what might this be saying about our country, our so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ and their moral footing?” I’m grateful for the recent conversations I’ve had with some high school history teachers in my district who are committed to presenting their students with a more complete view of these “vocabulary words.”

I have had to seek out my own learning opportunities to fill in the gaps with the stories and perspectives I’ve missed. I’ve missed so many. One book I can’t recommend enough in understanding more about those stories and perspectives is Carol Anderson’s White Rage. I wrote about one of her chapters in this post on my previous site. Our country’s history is filled with marginalization, dehumanization, oppression, and genocide. Reading about the mental, moral, and political gymnastics that our white founders performed to justify slavery would be laughable if it weren’t so incredibly tragic. I’m so tired of the “well they were a product of their time” excuse. I’m so tired. What does it even mean to be a product of one’s time? Recently someone told me on Facebook that life was “unfair” back then for lots of groups of people and implied that I needed to better understand the context of the time. Again, what does “unfair” mean when you’re trying to survive the horrors of chattel slavery?

I’m also tired of the “well they had good intentions” nonsense. I find it very lazy to fall back on the excuse of “I didn’t mean to hurt that person” or “it’s not my fault they took it that way.” It reminds me of the refereeing I have to do between my six and four year old children when they get in a fight. Recently, the #cleartheair crew engaged in a rich conversation about the common group norm of “presuming positive intentions” and the potential damage that can lead to in letting the person who caused harm not have to take ownership of the outcome of that harm. I can’t find the thread but if I do, I’ll add it here.

I was able to hear Dr. Kendi speak at the Antiracist Book Festival in April and he talked a good deal about the danger of always focusing on intentions. Intentions are hard to prove. Someone is always going to be able to say they did or didn’t intend for something to turn out the way that it did. Rather, he, and other antiracist activists, argue that you must focus instead on outcomes. What was the outcome of this action or policy? Did it result in positive or negative outcomes for some over others? If so, who might be disproportionately benefiting from this policy? Who might be disproportionately hurt? These are the types of questions I learned first from Cornelius Minor and we are asking in my school about the instructional practices we employ with our students.

We have to start complicating history more. I was presented with a sunshine and rainbows view of our history; a history I should be proud to call mine and to never question whether the people who founded the country might have had some “issues.” I was implicitly taught never to question the greatness of this nation; to do so is unpatriotic and shameful (see Colin Kaepernick) and you “if you don’t love it, you should leave it” (KKK slogan, also what the current president said this week). I’m going to leave you with the words of one of my most favorite writers, Clint Smith III. He wrote and recorded a poem he entitles ” A letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office.” It’s indeed brief, but spectacular.

If you’re up for complicating history with me, let me know. I am always looking to grow my learning squad.

Two Questions

“You asked me here to help see your racism, but by god, I’d better not actually help you see your racism.” 

-Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

Those of you who work in Fairfax County Public Schools may be aware that the wonderful Assistant Superintendent for Region 3 recently moved to Rochester, NY. Terry Dade is an inspirational and passionate leader and those who know him recognize how insanely lucky Rochester is to have him leading their district.

Fortunately, I had the chance to see Mr. Dade one more time before he made his move official. He spoke to the Region 3 Equity Leads at our final meeting of the year in June. He didn’t have much time to speak to us but in the minutes he had, he charged us with ways to measure our effectiveness as Equity Leads using two questions.

First, how many people are we bringing along in this work? Most schools only have one official Equity Lead and I believe high schools have two. This cannot be the work of just one or two people in a building, though. We must be constantly inviting others to join in the learning and conversations that are going to disrupt the inequities present in our district. I had the privilege of hearing DeRay McKesson speak at the first annual Antiracist Book Festival at American University in April. During that session, he reminded us that there are many ways to enter this work; that the way I entered this work isn’t going to be the same way someone else enters. We must keep opening as many doors as we can to get as many people committed and into the work as possible. I think the way I do this is very natural to me – I’m constantly searching for ways to learn about and understand what I don’t know. The more I learn about a topic, the more I realize there is to learn about said topic. I also love to learn alongside others and will always invite partners in learning and reflecting. This summer, that’s been through an online book club discussing Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race.

The greatest challenge I have with this question is I want the answer to be EVERYONE – I’m bringing EVERYONE along in this work. I am pretty confident it’s always been the case with my personality type that I learn about something important, tell someone else about that something important, expect they’ll also think it’s something important, and am blown when they don’t immediately have the same level of passion and urgency about that something important as I do. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve learned to chill a bit on this front and recognize and seize every opportunity I have to plant a seed of importance and urgency, understanding that the seed may take a bit of time to germinate but it’ll never grow if it’s not planted.

The second question Mr. Dade gave us to consider was “What conversations are others leading when you’re not around?” As a white person, this one is KEY for me. So often, I and others will remain silent when faced with potentially awkward conversations about race and equity. Robin DiAngelo describes this phenomenon as White Solidarity. DiAngelo defines white solidarity as maintaining the comfort of other people, even in the face of racist behavior. In prioritizing white comfort over truth-telling, we allow racism to go undisturbed. (Ruben Brose discusses more about it here.) It is one of my goals as Equity Lead to build the capacity of others to not let people off the hook when they say or do something problematic. I have to get better at this and I plan to help others gain tools to combat white supremacy in all its forms while I gain more of my own.

Thank you, Terry, for your incredible leadership in FCPS and for planting such important seeds in this educator’s brain. We have so much work to do and so far to go but I’m hopeful we’ve at least “left the front porch.”

I’ve already shared a great deal of my learning to this point on my previous blog platform found here and will continue to do so on my new site.

Thanks for reading!

Me

I’m a math and literacy coach in Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia. I’m deeply passionate about working to make this country what it says it is for EVERYONE. No prerequisites.

I decided to take the leap and set up my own website after running a blog on this platform for the past few years: http://therelentlesslyrestlessteacher.edublogs.org/

My blog began with a mostly education focus. As I began to learn more about systemic inequities in education, I realized how interwoven those systemic issue are with so many other systems in this country – justice, housing, banking, employment, and the list goes on. My personality type requires that I learn more about the root cause of a situation so I can best understand the way forward. Thus, my learning and writing has turned towards understanding and sharing more about the history that’s shaped the present.

In my personal life, I’m called mommy by two little boys – Owen and Henry – who I proudly (and sometimes blindly) am raising with my ultimate BFF James. I love to read. My greatest fear in life is that I’ll die without reading all of the books I want to read. I love to write. This blog has provided me an outlet I never knew I wanted. I am also super into the science of exercise and eating well.

Follow me on Twitter @katie_eustis