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Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Monday, August 26, 2013
I’ve been wondering how I could commemorate Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, on the fiftieth anniversary this week of that watershed event in American society. I was ten years old, in 1963, and his words were part of that fire starting in my soul, the start of a passion for justice and possibility for every person. That fire burns in me still.
And, within an hour yesterday, I was immersed in an intensive, hands on, exploration of racism and prejudice in my community, and the experiences tested that fire inside of me, and got it to blazing into a righteous bonfire.
I’d gone into town for a haircut and a cup of coffee, maybe working out at the gym. My regular barber wasn’t working, so I slipped into the chair of another hair stylist at the salon, telling her the few things I wanted in the haircut.
Another customer came in, interrupting us, insistent on getting her hair styled. I felt my stylist tense up, her jaw tight.
“I’m not able to take you today,” my stylist said, a slight edge in her voice. “Someone else will be here in fifteen minutes. You can come back then.”
The customer left, and my stylist flew into an animated discussion with me and the other stylist in the shop, about how that customer had ranted and raved about the “wetbacks” and “lazy Mexicans” the last time she was here for an appointment.
“Look, I’m Mexican,” the stylist said, her arms flailing, her scissors nearly flying out of her hand. “My family works hard. My husband is working two jobs, jobs most Americans won’t do. We’re not on welfare, we don’t have food stamps. We work hard for everything we have here.
“How dare she says we should go back to where we came from. Her ancestors were immigrants, too. If we go ‘back’, then, she should, too,” she said, her rapid snips with her scissors shaping up my shaggy mane.
“I’m not going to cut her hair. I’m not putting up with people who are racists, people who judge people by the color of their skin, or where they came from. I just don’t understand people like that.”
She cooled off a bit, then, and we had a rich conversation about prejudice, and bigotry, and people who lump a big group into some category, and have opinions that ignore the facts, ignoring how people work hard, and struggle, so that their kids can have good, productive lives.
I left the salon with one of the quickest haircuts I’ve ever had, newly energized by her anger, and again saddened by the rudeness and bigotry that was still alive and thriving in my hometown. My stylist wasn’t afraid about speaking her mind. And, if she can speak up, maybe I can, too. Her power and her courage were at my back as I headed for my car.
Ten feet out the door, a young friend came up and spoke to me, inviting me to go have a cup of coffee. We’d spent a day not long ago looking at universities, exploring options for him to study for his bachelor’s degree. We’d both learned a lot that day, and it would be fun to debrief a little, and find out what he’d been thinking about, what he was planning for his future.
As I unlocked the car, my phone rang. One of the guys I’ve been mentoring, a young man I now consider to be a son, was calling.
“I need some advice,” he said. “People at work want to know about my past, but if I tell them everything, then I think they will judge me, they will just think I’m just a criminal, they won’t really look beyond that, and see me for who I really am.”
We had a rich conversation, about prejudice, and bigotry, and how we all need to not let bigots get close to us, and put us down, judging us without really knowing us. About how we don’t need to let others manipulate us, and put us in pigeon holes, so that we don’t have to play the role of being less than someone else. Each of us has value, we are children of God, we are beautiful people. We are more than our skin color, or where our ancestors came from, we are more than one thing we might have done in the past.
We talked about self care, and standing up for yourself, about living life with pride and direction, purpose. We talked about appreciating people by their character, by their ethics and morals, and not by some preconceived, uninformed stereotype.
I told him the story of my hair stylist, how she had drawn the line in the sand, refusing to work with a client who would stereotype her, and put her down, to degrade and prejudge her life and her family.
He took that all in, and figured out a strategy on coping with people who would prejudge him and gossip about him, people who would easily put him into a category of “others”, people who wouldn’t appreciate him for the beautiful, creative, and loving person that he is inside.
I drove down the road to the coffee shop, running a bit late after my deep conversation with my son. My buddy was already sipping his coffee, his nose deep in a thick textbook, one that absorbed his curious mind about the science of his new job.
We talked about what he’d been learning about all the colleges and programs he could apply for, and all the careers he could explore.
And, we also talked about the conversation I had with the hair stylist, and her bigoted customer.
“I’m a wetback, too,” he said, with a bit of pride. “I came here when I was eight, because my mom wanted me to get an education, and make something out of my life.”
He talked about his struggles to make it through high school, and then community college. He talked about not being able to get a driver’s license, about working under the table at a farm, so he could help his family and find a few bucks for school clothes and books, and gas.
He talked about the farmer he used to work for, and how the farmer would rant and rave about all the wetbacks and illegal immigration, and how the government was wasting a lot of welfare money on the “dirty Mexicans”. And, then the farmer would pay him under the table, and not take anything out of his pay for taxes and social security, and how the farmer didn’t see the disconnect in his thinking, and about how the farmer was breaking the law, and taking advantage of those “dirty Mexicans”, the “dirty Mexicans” he happily underpaid to milk his cows and shovel manure and do all the other hard work that he couldn’t find anyone else around this town to do.
He talked about how tough it was to go through all the hoops and finally get an immigration card that lets him be here legally, as long as he’s going to school, and how it is still another ten years before he might become a citizen. And, how his parents still drive to work without a valid license, and how they can never become citizens, even though they’ve lived here for the last twelve years, they have jobs, and they make sure their kids get to school, how they are good people, people this country should be proud to have as citizens.
People just like my ancestors, my people who came over on the boat, who took the awful, low paying jobs, so that their kids could go to school, and their grandkids could be doctors, lawyers, and engineers.
He talked about getting stopped by a cop late one night, just him and the cop on a lonely, dark country road; and how the cop yelled at him for breaking the law, for finding a way to get a driver’s license from another state, so my buddy could still get back and forth to work, and college, and take care of his family. He talked about how the cop called him a “wetback” and how “you people” should go back where you came from.
I have a dream, too, thanks in part to Martin Luther King’s work and beliefs that society can change, that we can accept others for who they are, and not to judge people by the color of their skin, but instead by the strength of their character.
If we really believe in the rule of law, if we really believe that each one of us is a child of God, that we are here to live lives of service, and compassion, and understanding, that every person is precious, and has endless possibilities to live a life of beauty and love and value.
That cop would hear that speech from me, again, and I think I’d be pretty impassioned about it, drawing on the passion my hair stylist had about dealing with racists and bigots.
I was pretty worked up by the time I got home, inspired to read Dr. King’s speech again, to dig a bit deep inside of me, to explore my prejudices and my biases. What I was wanting to say was on the stove, still warm, simmering, waiting for the muse to strike, to get my words down on the computer.
Then, last night, I’m taking a troll through Facebook. I see a young friend has posted a video. “Funny” he writes, so I take a look.
The video shows a white guy advertising a laundromat that only washes white clothes. It’s the “white’s only” laundry. The next scene is him again, saying that the first ad has riled up some people, so he’s changed the name to “no coloreds”, and offers Black people a side entrance to the laundry.
As my blood begins to boil, I struggle to keep watching, dreading what the next scene might be.
The white man comes on again, saying that the “no colored’s” name bothered some people, so he was going to change the name again to “Uncle Tom’s Laundry”, but that there would still be “no coloreds” washed and dried there.
I sat there, stunned, not really knowing how to react.
After all, it has been more than fifty years that Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, it has been fifty years since the March on Selma, and Dr. King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
It’s been a shorter period of time since my home town repealed the “sundown law” that said Blacks had to leave town at the end of the day. It’s been a shorter period of time since some of the social clubs in town have allowed Blacks and women to sit in their bars and have a drink, and become members, even officers.
And, it’s been less than a day since a young friend posts a video about “no coloreds” for all the community to see, and maybe even guffaw about.
We have a black president, we have a black attorney general, we have black judges and members of Congress.
Yet, 2013 also has the Trayvon Martin shooting trial, and an agonizing, disjointed national discussion about what that was and what that means. We have the US Attorney General, on national TV, talking about how he feels he needs to tell his son, a black teenager, about the dangers and risks of being young and black on the streets of our national capital late at night, about how to be leery of cops, about being judged because of the color of his skin.
And, 2013, in my town, we have these conversations, and these racist, bigoted comments and attitudes, and videos posted in social media that are thought of as “funny”, but are as racist and bigoted as the cross burnings and Klan marches, and segregated busses and lunch counters and schools of the 1960s.
We aren’t there, yet, not by a long shot. But, I can still dream. And, I can still be angry, and intolerant of racism and prejudice, and putting people down because of where they came from, or the color of their skin, or the language they might speak.
We have a ways to go. We still need to dream.
Neal Lemery, 8/24/2013
Monday, August 12, 2013
“It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Can I really make a difference in the world? Does what I do really matter?
The other day, I ran into a young man I’d worked with, having long talks about his future. We became friends, and I was a cheerleader in his life. I watched him refocus in high school, and graduating there. I walked with him and held his hand as he thought about college, and enrolling.
A few years later, I watched him receive his community college diploma, laughing with him as he posed for a family picture, diploma in hand. His wife, and his sister, now both in college, stood proudly beside him.
At the store, he shared a photo of his new baby, and his dream of a bright future, getting his bachelor’s degree, creating a bright future for him and his family.
“Thanks,” he said, quietly. “Without you pushing me, encouraging me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
A few weeks ago, I took a young man to a university, walking with him into the registrar’s office to schedule his classes, and get him ready for fall term. We’d worked together last spring, to get him admitted, and transferring all his credits he’d earned for his associates degree, ready to start his junior year. He’s been aiming for a bachelor’s degree for a long time, and was finally able to make the move into a four year university, one that has an excellent program in his area of interest.
He’d been dragging his feet, not making the phone call to schedule his class registration, and all the other paperwork that needed to get done before he was really ready to begin classes. The plan was for me to drive him there, make a day of it, and to celebrate his achievements. But, he was dropping the ball, ignoring my increasingly less than subtle hints to take that drive, and move on with his life.
I nudged, I prodded, and I waited. Procrastination and fear took over, even a bit of resentment towards me, for being the quiet voice urging him forward, encouraging him to go live his dream.
Time was running out, and I spoke up, becoming direct, calling out for him to confront the elephant in the living room, and get moving here, moving ahead with his life. We met, finally, to have that hard conversation. We argued, we struggled, we finally got to the heart of his struggle, we each teared up, our guts churning.
We named the elephant, and we argued some more. He asked me where he thought I’d be in a few years, if he didn’t go to college, if he didn’t make that short trip to the university’s registrar that week, and be ready for fall term.
I got blunt, and painted a realistic picture.
“If you don’t live your dream, if you don’t work towards achieving your goals, life will be hard, and life will be disappointing. You will end up being disappointed in yourself. Is that what you want?”
He admitted he really did want to go to college, but the old voices, the voices of childhood that had always whispered that he wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t deserving of success, those were the voices speaking loudly in his head lately.
We refocused. We didn’t dwell on “failure” and “I’m not good enough”. Instead, we moved on, living in today. And, looking towards the future, planning for it, taking real time steps to get where he wanted to go.
I grabbed the car keys, and his cold, sweaty hand, and walked him to my car. Amazingly, at least to him, within an hour, we were at the registrar’s office in the university, organizing his schedule, planning for his graduation in two years. He registered for classes, accepted his healthy array of scholarships, and sent in his student loan application.
On the way out the door, we picked up his student body card and scheduled a time for him to meet his department head and double check his class schedule, to make sure he was on the right track with his major.
Along the way, every college staff person was courteous, informative, and dedicated to getting him enrolled and off to a good start. Each one of them took the time to take an interest in him, focus on his needs, and help him achieve his goals for the day, and for the next two years of his life.
Each one of them, taking the time, being interested, investing in him. He saw that in how they treated him, how they were living their day. The caring about one other person, one at a time, with all of their focus, all of their energies, all of their wisdom.
And, so it begins, the new student and the teachers, the first lesson, building on the past, and aiming at the future.
One person at a time.
Neal Lemery, August, 2013
Thursday, August 8, 2013
“Do not resuscitate” is tattooed across his chest, and he’s just keeled over. My newly recertified to perform CPR self is ready to spring into action, ready with my well rehearsed thirty chest compressions, then two short breaths, and repeat until he’s cheated death. I want to get him ready again for another round of golf, or another pitcher at the biker bar down the street.
What do I do now? Try to save his life, or just wait for the ambulance. Maybe he’ll die, and I haven’t done a thing.
We’re all sitting on the floor, our hands sweaty in our brand new Red Cross gloves, fresh out of the box. our CPR mannequins are strewn across the floor, resting from yet another round of our chest thrusts, then breathing into their plastic, unsmiling mouths. Thirty and two, thirty and two, my new mantra I’ll take from this class, is running through my head.
We’re talking about getting Mr. Heart Attack’s permission to pound on his chest, restarting his heart, saving his life.
“You need their consent,” the instructor intones, in his best, by the manual, voice.
“What if they say no?” someone asks.
Saying no, right when you’re itching to put your hand in the middle of their chest. Your fingers are laced into your other hand, ready to begin your compressions, singing “Stayin’ Alive” to yourself, to keep you on your rhythm, 100 compressions a minute. Disco beat, heart beat. You and John Travolta are singing your duet, waiting for the ambulance, saving a life.
“What if they’ve got a tattoo, one that says no, inked across their chest?”
The guy next to me, the guy with dreadlocks in his beard, my practice buddy with Ricky the Mannequin, is asking the question. He’s the tattoo artist from Indiana, taking the class so he can start inking the few people in Portland who apparently have a few uninked inches left on their pale Northwest skin.
“I’ve inked that tattoo on a number of guys, and a few women, too,” he says. “And, for most of them, they do it as a joke.”
Consent. Informed, you hope, the instructor intones again, in his best Red Cross voice, making us think about how some folks may not want us to push hard and fast into their chest, maybe cracking a rib, maybe restarting their heart. But what if they keel over, pass out cold, not letting you know if they want to hear your version of 1970s disco music, maybe saving their life?
We all laugh, breaking the tension in the room, the first time we’ve really thought today about what it means to maybe save someone’s life, by beating on their chest, reprising old disco tunes, just something to do until the ambulance comes. Like the warning label on mattresses, we ought to plunge on, we agree, ignoring what’s probably a bad joke of a tattoo, inked on there to make the girlfriend, or the boys down at the bar, laugh a bit.
After all, “Stayin’ Alive” was a pretty popular song. The guy underneath my hands probably wouldn’t mind hearing it again.