Fresh out of college, I moved to Philadelphia and joined AmeriCorps. It was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.
I found myself–a young, middle-class, white woman–walking through the toughest neighborhoods of Philly on my way to improve literacy rates among kids. It was daunting. I imagined all sorts of crazy scenarios, but I quickly learned that no one cared about me. No one was going to bother the white girl in her pickup truck, and the schools all had strict security protocols. Funny where your imagination can take you if you let fear guide it, but recognizing that fear and where it comes from makes all the difference.
Every day for the first couple of months, however, I came home feeling sick. The kids I worked with lived in terrible circumstances, and while I got up close and personal with their daily struggles, I got to walk away from them every day. I got to return to my quaint brick building and eat sundried-tomato hummus from my local co-op.
I wasn’t used to being around extreme poverty, and it made me ache. One of the elementary schools I visited regularly was surrounded on three sides by projects and the fourth side by derelict buildings full of squatters, as evidenced by sheets that hung in random windows. There was a high fence all the way around the building, and inside that fence, at one end, was a small playground that was nothing but blacktop.
One sunny afternoon a boy cried when he learned that it wasn’t his turn to work with me. He had told me the previous week that he watched his mother die of an overdose. He was eight. He was black. He had the sweetest heart you can imagine, but just a few years later you’d probably see him as a thug. Because that’s what happens to black boys. They hit puberty, and we decide they’re dangerous. That may as well be the end of their lives.
At Benjamin Franklin High School, the ninth-grade class I worked with read on a third-grade level, yet they all had passing grades. They weren’t being taught; they were being kept off the streets. There were three pregnant girls. One of the boys who’d done the impregnating strutted around the room while the books provided for them sat in plastic baskets in the back, books about Arthur the aardvark, little boys learning how to play baseball, and monsters eating homework.
When we worked on a project that required us to walk around the neighborhood, drug deals went down right in front of them and they didn’t bat an eye. Maybe they were busy thinking about what Arthur the aardvark might be up to.
Every Monday I spent the afternoon with a group of middle-school and high-school Latinas at a Catholic community center. It was my favorite part of the week despite always needing to go out and move my truck closer to the building before it got dark because a car down the block had been set on fire with a person in it a month before I started. One evening when I went out to move my truck, someone was stealing the car in front of mine. I just pretended I hadn’t seen anything.
The girls were lively and fun and full of ideas, but they were also full of the most heartbreaking stories. One girl told me that her uncle had molested her since she was eleven. I had this idea that two super-smart sisters could do well in school and get out of there, but then I learned that they had no concept of getting out of there. They’d never left their neighborhood. Their mom was an addict who lived and worked on the street, and they lived with their dad and his girlfriend, who was always threatening to kick them out. The older one, in eighth grade, lost her boyfriend when he was shot in the head because he had the best corner.
All of the girls wanted to be Jennifer Lopez, but other than that, they had no thought of moving beyond their neighborhood. It was what they knew. So I tried to nurture their inner JLo. I helped them write about their lives, taught them about acting, and choreographed a dance performance. Every Monday they got a little break from their daily struggle to survive; they got to laugh and sing and dance, which is what living is about.
That was fifteen years ago, and I have no idea what happened to any of those kids. I don’t know who made it, who’s dead, who’s in prison.
I think about them a lot, especially when yet another unarmed black teenager is shot by the police.
I probably didn’t do very much for those kids in the long term, but they did a lot for me. They showed me the reality of poverty and racism. They showed me how the justice system didn’t (and still doesn’t) work in communities of color, how authorities and the media have let down communities of color over and over again. Sometimes I knew about violence that didn’t make the news for some reason. Sometimes it made the news in a way that was utterly different from the story I’d heard from people who were there.
I will never stop fighting for racial and economic justice because I know the lives of kids depend on it. But sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do, especially if you’re white and middle class.
If there are demonstrations in your city, go to them. Connect with the people there to work on real change for the future.
If you work with low-income kids, find ways to nurture their creativity, which can give them solace from the difficulties in their lives and effective ways to work through those difficulties.
If you lead camps or workshops for kids, find ways to make them accessible to low-income kids. Make sure your group is diverse in terms of economic background and race/ethnicity. Get white kids accustomed to diverse environments so they question situations where everyone is white.
If you’ve got some time to volunteer, find an organization or collective that works with kids in low-income areas. Read with kids. Let them sing and dance and paint.
But don’t go in thinking you can save them. They don’t need to be saved, especially by a white person. Think of it as skill sharing or knowledge sharing. You’re going to share what you know with them, and, in turn, you’re going to learn a hell of a lot about the rest of the world.
And then share what you’ve learned with other people. Apply it to your work. Use it to change systems that have long been mired in racism and aren’t doing anyone any good. Use it to increase diversity among decision-makers. Don’t let kids get out of third grade without meeting appropriate reading levels. Question why law enforcement is mostly white in a mostly black city and the effect that has on both police and those being policed. Use strategic creative action.
When I look at pictures of Michael Brown, the young man shot in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, I see that eight-year-old boy crying because I don’t have time for him that day. What do you see? Don’t let fear drive your creativity and overrule your empathy. Look beyond the characteristics you have been taught to fear. Imagine that little boy and how different his life could have been.
Today is Malala Day, the birthday celebration of Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taliban shot in the head because she wanted to go to school. That was two years ago, and I am still moved by everything she does. It’s so easy to let life unravel in the face of horrible circumstances, and yet she kept going, keeps going. Her continued existence would have been enough to fight back. Going back to school would have been enough. But Malala skyrocketed, becoming an advocate for girls’ education and a role model for girls all over the world.
Her brave yet peaceful response to the Taliban, and to all who try to hold girls back, is a great lesson for our warmongering leaders, if they took the time to really listen to girls. She doesn’t fight violence with violence; she fights it with education and, more precisely, books. Check out this new video where she explains how books are stronger than bullets.
Malala just turned seventeen. My niece is going on fourteen, and the night before she came to visit us last week my partner and I watched The Punk Singer, the movie about Kathleen Hanna. It got me all fired up about making a mix CD for my niece. (Side note: since the 80s and 90s are back in, will kids start making mix tapes again? Pretty please?) My partner and I started talking about how so much of our values and world views came from the books we found at the library or borrowed from friends, the records we collected from thrift stores and out-of-the way shops, and the zines we traded when we were kids.
My feminist life, for instance, started when I cracked open The Bell Jar and discovered that someone had put my feelings into words. The Color Purple started me on the path to racial and economic justice. When I listened to “Rebel Girl,” Kathleen Hanna was the queen of my world. I devoured these books and records and then I learned about the women behind them, and I finally had an image of the kind of woman I wanted to be.
I wanted to create, to agitate, to express myself. Each book or record was like a window to what could be.
By the end of my niece’s visit, we walked out of a used bookstore, arms piled high with books and CDs. Malala had to face gunmen to get to books; we only had to stroll into a shop the size of a warehouse and take our pick.
Though we in the US are lucky to have access to free public schools, there are a lot of arguments about the state of education here today. Teachers have their hands tied by nonsensical standardized tests that leave children of color further and further behind. To make matters worse, attendance and performance here are affected by everything from street violence and school attacks to dating violence and bullying.
But there is one way we can help young people get at least a little of the education they need. For Malala Day, think about the things that helped you find your way when you were younger, that helped to define who you are today–a book, record, print, poem–and give a copy to a kid.
Books are #strongerthan bullets.
I was reading a rather yawn-inducing piece on Jezebel describing the concept of a “basic bitch” and my eyes wandered into the comment section, which is typically fine on that site because most readers are feminist, anti-racist, etc. But I saw something really bizarre happen. A commenter who introduced herself as a Native American woman said she was tired of all the anti-white articles and comments popping up all over the internet, and people responded by challenging her Nativeness, even going so far as to demand to know what tribe she belongs to, whose rolls she’s on, what rez she lives on.
They were doing this because they felt like she was complaining about reverse racism (which pretty much only happens at an individual level and not at a systemic level, so it’s not the same thing as actual racism, which is pervasive and affects every aspect of people’s lives), a reaction they thought was kind of racist in and of itself, so they responded with…their own racism.
Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s not really okay to question how Native someone is just because you don’t think they act or look like a Native person should. Because of the problem of blood quantum, people still think it’s perfectly acceptable to single out Native Americans as the one group that must prove their ethnicity. With blood.
Blood quantum is the measure of how much Native blood a person has. It’s like the one-drop rule, but instead of being used to classify as many people as possible as non-white so they could be segregated from white people and treated like second-class citizens, blood quantum was established by the US government (and back in the colonies) to actually limit the number of Native Americans. The smaller the tribe, the less the government had to offer in a treaty. Even now, government benefits to tribes are measly due to blood quantum. Lived all your life on the res, 100% Native, but descended from several different tribes? Too bad, you don’t have enough blood from this one tribe to be a full member, so the US government ignores you. Old tribal census rolls are incomplete because the US government forced your family off their land, sent their kids to boarding schools where their language was beaten out of them, and your grandfather was delivered in a shack with a dirt floor (by a drunk doctor who screwed up his birth certificate) to parents whose records don’t appear to exist? Sorry, friend, you’re out of luck.
Last week I saw this image of a white Cleveland baseball fan in red face haughtily explaining himself to a Native man. In the middle of the city. At a public event. In red face. Like it’s totally cool.
It’s an understatement to say that Native Americans are only visible in our society as mascots. And even then those mascot roles are often played by white people (see Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Rooney Mara’s recent casting as Tiger Lily in an upcoming Peter Pan movie). If you want to see Native people represented as real, multi-dimensional human beings, you have to dig around.
To help you get started, here are a few creative projects that challenge the stereotypes that even some “anti-racist” Jezebel readers perpetuate.
- The Cherokee Word for Water: This recently released film about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, focuses on her big impact on a tribal community without water.
- Reel Injun: Filmmaker Neil Diamond won a Peabody Award for his exploration of Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Natives.
- Project 562: Matika Wilbur has been photographing people from every federally recognized tribe in the US for this Kickstarter-funded project. She includes this anecdote on her Kickstarter page: “I had this incredible experience at the bottom of The Grand Canyon. The elders appointed a teenage boy to help me carry my equipment to photo shoots (since there aren’t cars down there, and I’m clumsy on a horse). He was kind of quiet at first, standoffish even. But after the first interview and photoshoot, he was excited for the next one. He started suggesting ideas. I could see him listening as we spoke to his elders. That evening, he revealed that he had walked a despairing path, having struggled with depression and his own sense of Tribal identity. As I was leaving, he shyly pulled me aside, and told me that this project gave him a new sense of hope. He said that he believed in me. He said that I was the first lady that he’d ever met that had went on to ‘do something’. He thanked me for giving him hope. He said that his experience with Project 562 had meant more to him than he could articulate.”
- The Artifact Piece: Clad in a loincloth, performance artist James Luna lies in a display case to underscore the problem of presenting Native people as artifacts of the past instead of living, evolving people of the present.
- The Round House: Louise Erdrich’s latest novel of an Ojibwe family won the 2012 National Book Award.
- Crazy Brave: Poet Joy Harjo’s new memoir chronicles her search for her voice and herself. What she’s learned about the debris of trauma: “You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.”
The latest on Pussy Riot: Formerly imprisoned members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are coming to New York to talk about political prisoners for an Amnesty International event. Despite Putin’s attempts to silence them, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain unwavering in their commitment to social change. Journalist Masha Gessen’s recently published book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot is at the top of my must-read list.
More riot grrrls: Dazed has an excellent A-Z guide to the women who stomped through the 90s, from Allison Wolfe to zines. Love it. (That’s an expression of my love and a demand for yours.)
Art I’m into right now: Lindsay Bottos offers a clever, artistic response to gendered online harassment. ONOMOllywood, an exhibition from photographers Antoine Tempé and Omar Victor Diop, features iconic film shots re-imagined in Dakar and Abidjan. (It’s sort of an ad campaign for a hotel chain.) The photographs Ibi Ibrahim will soon be showing in the Art14 London Art Fair are a sex-positive response to conservative Islam.
From 6 minutes to 24 hours: Tired of being expected to play a terrorist, Iranian-American actor Jemilah King made a short displaying Hollywood’s narrow view and her much broader abilities. If you’ve got more time, the Global Lives Project curates a collection of films that “faithfully capture 24 continuous hours in the life of individuals from around the world.” It’s a work in progress devoted to cultivating empathy, and there’s a two-week unit for educators to use.
Creativity in places you aren’t looking for it but should be: Women’s World Summit Foundation is seeking nominations for the 2014 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life, emphasizing sustainable development, household food security, and peace.
Lately I’ve been nostalgic for the books I read in my youth. I don’t know why, but I can’t get them out of my mind. Are you ever jealous of someone who is reading one of your beloved novels for the very first time? They’re just stepping into the world of authors like Lorrie Moore or Jamaica Kincaid or characters like Thomas Cromwell or Harry Potter. Oh, to enter the wizarding world anew! If you’ve never had that feeling, my guess is you aren’t a serious reader. You probably didn’t find that book when you were younger, the book that sweeps you away and leaves you losing hours in the comforting hush of libraries, digging through musty used bookstores, piling up books in every nook and cranny of your house, sniffing a brand-new book like it’s a drug.
I think that may be what it’s about. I’m reminiscing about what it was like to discover the world of literature. It really is a world. It’s a whole other world you have no idea is out there until you find yourself in the midst of it. And then your brain’s soft explosion leaves you changed forever. There is always another place you can go to even when you are stuck in bed with a fever or frustrated with the way of the world or really just hating life. You realize that as long as you have these places in your mind, you are safe.
Do you have safe places in your mind? Sometimes when everything is crappy, I open one of my Harry Potter books for an hour or so, and then I feel much better. But often my recollection does just as well. And this translates to real-life experiences. When I’m flying and turbulence hits, I go to the number-one happy place in my head, which took place ten years ago. My family was in southern California for a wedding, and we spent a day at the beach. No one wanted to go into the water but my three-year-old niece and me. So I pulled her onto my back and we threw ourselves against the waves, laughing and laughing with each one, until we wore ourselves out. I think it’s years of serious reading that allow me to conjure up that memory so clearly, perhaps embellish it a bit to fit my present need, and forget (mostly) that the plane might plummet to the sea, leaving me the lone survivor floating on a piece of wreckage in a storm surrounded by sharks. In the middle of the ocean. (My imagination stoking unlikely, if not impossible, fears is, of course, the other side of the reading coin.)
Anyway, I’ve been so nostalgic lately that I actually listened to a Judy Blume audio book on my phone the other day while painting the bedroom. It was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which stood up fairly well, better than I expected. And it made me feel like youth was better than I remembered it to be, like maybe middle school wasn’t such a horror after all. It just felt like that at the time, and now that I’m more than twenty years away from it, there are things I can appreciate about it and, dare I say…miss? Don’t you miss that thrill of discovery, of a whole world you’ve yet to traverse?
I think there’s another element in here: the book series. Sometimes a writer creates a world I don’t want to leave, so a series can be the ultimate delight. I miss them, and they are mostly to be found in genre fiction, of which I read little. Young adult fiction is rife with series, and I remember being so immersed in them that I felt like a character. Going on to read the second or third or twelfth book was very much about seeing what I would do next as Nancy Drew or Claudia Kishi or Ramona Quimby.
I’ve mentioned before that I read a lot of Nancy Drew* as a kid, so the first story I wrote was my own version of Nancy Drew. Then I wrote other stories based on books I’d read or movies I’d seen. It was an obvious way to keep those worlds going, and that very desire may have been what got me started as a writer. At some point, I moved away from that to create my own narratives, but they were still very influenced by what I’d read and seen. For instance, I created a fashion book (at age 10, I believe) full of childish designs with descriptions of how and where they were to be worn. In the lengthy acknowledgements, I thanked my boyfriend, Adam Curry, MTV VJ and host of Headbangers Ball, which I was not allowed to watch.
There were other series I loved and that still stick with me. One was The Baby-sitter’s Club. I wanted it to be my life, and I so adored it that I actually watched the movie when it came out in 1995 even though I was eighteen. I have to confess that I’d watch it now. In fact, I’m tempted to find one of the books at the library and see if it stands the test of time. I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed, however, and the Stoneybrook that still lives in my imagination will be silly and dull.
When I think of all those beloved books I read as a kid, I can smell the old library where I met many of them for the first time. My sister and I spent every other weekend at our dad’s, and he would take us to his library branch, which was in a strip mall, but no less special for its sad location. Rather, it stands out to me as a magical place. Next to the TJ Maxx was a room full of books and every book could be mine for a couple of weeks. There was no way I could get through them all. There were always more good books waiting to be taken home and devoured.
I think of that place, gray and plain as it may have been, and the many books I cherished. I look at kids of that age today, and I think, wait until you read this one or that one; your whole world will change. I realize they will also discover fabulous books that didn’t exist when I was young. And I feel good about life and the future.
*Did you know there are Nancy Drew games?
Once upon a time, I lived in a purely utilitarian building. There was a good reason for its existence. Most of the city had been destroyed in World War II, so the citizens of Wrocław, Poland–many of them newly arrived after deportations from parts of the country that were annexed by the Soviet Union–needed shelter. Eventually, concrete apartment blocks took shape. By the time I lived there in the early 2000s, some were deceptively sunny in coats of pink and yellow paint. But they were just concrete boxes, and I shook my hand at them and said, “You can’t fool me with pink paint! I know I live in a box.”
Living in a box is certainly better than living on the street, but I always felt a little better when I got outside and walked to the square, where the Gothic and Baroque buildings (many also rebuilt) thrilled me. I need creativity in my life. I must feel it, see it, hear it, taste it. Maybe it’s a luxury for some, but it’s a necessity for me.
Slate has an article that describes our rejection of creativity. We say we appreciate creativity, but the reality is that we only appreciate the result and most of the time when we see creativity, we stomp it out. Jessica Olien writes: “Even in supposedly creative environments, in the creative departments of advertising agencies and editorial meetings at magazines, I’ve watched people with the most interesting—the most ‘out of the box’—ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution.”
Ugh. I’ve experienced that in a lot of jobs. I’m the type of person who likes to solve problems, so when I see a problem, I’m not interested in ignoring it, or enabling it, or trying the safe things we know aren’t going to work because they never have before. I’m a creative problem-solver. I will find a way to fix this thing, but you have to give me the freedom to do it and you have to back me up on it to make it work. Unfortunately, most people are satisfied with the status quo, so things don’t get fixed. They remain inefficient and ineffective, and I pull out my hair and wonder why I am still there.
Olien cites a study that shows that teachers prefer uncreative students over creative ones. These would have to be uncreative teachers, I think. Teachers who toe the line and lash out against students whose curiosity extends beyond the neat borders of the curriculum. I’ve had those teachers. In ninth grade, my friend Kate and I were always the last two to make it into our English class after lunch. We were seated before the bell rang, but we preferred to linger in the hall or outside in those last few minutes rather than sit at our desks, where we’d be stuck for the next hour anyway. We were definite creative types, more comfortable in the theatre than on the track, and our teacher was a cross-country coach who was so obsessed with his team that rumor had it he named his child after his best runner.
It was clear that he didn’t think much of us. His feedback on my papers convinced me that he didn’t like my writing style and that he wasn’t interested in my creative approaches to his assignments, which only made me more determined to write them the way I wanted instead of the way he recommended. Kate and I both did a lot of daydreaming and gazing out of the window while he droned on about cattle rustling in The Ox-Bow Incident.
One day our teacher looked at Kate and said, “You’re such an enigma. Why don’t you sit in the same seat every day?”
Yes, apparently being the last person in the room and taking whatever seat is left is enigma-worthy. But what he really meant was: you’re creative, and I don’t understand you.
No thanks to him, Kate and I are both writers now. Fortunately, we also had creative teachers who nurtured our creativity and encouraged us to take risks.
In my first year of college, I wrote loads of papers, but one stands out. Another English class and an assignment on some really boring religion debate where you had to take one side and develop an argument. I didn’t want to do that, so I expanded the topic and wrote a creative response to the idea of organized religion. My instructor, fresh out of grad school and not much older than I, pulled me aside after class and said, “You know I can’t give you an ‘A’ on this paper because it doesn’t fit the assignment, but I can see that you are smart and creative. I’m going to give you the chance to rewrite it as assigned, but I also think you should keep writing creatively outside of class.”
Although I’d been encouraged by teachers in theatre and music, I’d never had a teacher tell me to “keep writing” the way I wanted to write.
I can get stuck working in formulas just like everyone else. That’s how we appease and, often, move forward. But, as with teachers, I’m always looking for the employer who will recognize what I really have to offer and open up a space for me to soar. Sometimes I’ve been lucky to find that person, sometimes I’ve retreated into the corner after too many disappointments, and other times I’ve been able to create that opportunity for myself.
Like anyone else, I can get so caught up in the mundane chores of life that I forget to find room for creativity. So I’m practicing intentional creativity. Every day I look for opportunities to be creative. If I’m stuck inside, I stop and notice what the natural world is up to outside my window, which allows me to wonder how mockingbirds learn to mimic, how I can work those sunset shades into something pretty to keep around, or what flowers to plant in the spring. I play with spices and listen to stories while cooking. If it’s too cold to run, I have a private dance party. If I need a distraction, I turn to Pinterest for project ideas and daydreaming rather than scrolling through Facebook posts. When I wake up, I take a moment to try to remember my dreams.
And whenever I feel like I’m trapped in a box, I at least open a window and bring in some flowers until I can find a way out. I definitely do not paint it pink and settle in.