Posted tagged ‘change’

Listening To Our Ghosts: Pilfering With Privilege

August 18, 2014

No shadow entitiesFollowing the suggestion of Courtney E. Martin to ‘talk to’ my own ‘ghosts’, (To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown) I find myself preoccupied with the ‘demonization’ of Michael Brown, the implicit suggestion that stealing some cigarillos could justify his killing. There is a wrenching in my gut every time I imagine the scene in Ferguson, a tangible grief over the loss of yet another young life. I think of my own children at that age and recognize how accidents of birth and circumstance, and yes, privilege, have brought them all into full adulthood alive and well.
And here is the hard part, where my ghosts rise up to instruct me: I remember every minor crime I have ever committed, as well as those of my white friends and family members, for which there were only minor, if any consequences, and for which we certainly did not risk or lose our lives: every petty theft, every traffic violation, every trespass, every illegal purchase and use of drugs and alcohol.
I can’t stop thinking about the shoplifting girls in high school, children of affluence, who swept through boutiques and specialty shops on a class trip with fingers so sticky that the school got a call of complaint from the merchants’ association the next day; their collective losses had been substantial. Although my memory is a bit fuzzy on this, I believe a bake sale was held to raise reparations funds to accompany the letter of apology that was sent. No arrests or prosecutions, no one chasing the young ladies out of the stores, no police searching for them on the streets, not even a whisper of violence. A bake sale.
We Americans are familiar with the disparities in perception, prosecution, and punishment of crimes depending upon the race of both victim and perpetrator. Our scandalous record is well-documented and even relatively well- reported. We KNOW, and can no longer claim or feign ignorance. We KNOW. And yet, not much changes.
Somewhere near the core, and certainly at the heart of this issue is our failure to see that we are One. As long as we can define another human being as ‘other’— not me, not my son— we lengthen the distances between ourselves, heightening and fortifying barriers of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, political persuasion, whatever category resonates with our fear and insecurity; we humans seize on just about anything to distinguish ourselves from each other in order to feel less lonely, more loved, as if we belong. And all of this just results in more judgment, distance, intolerance.
As I consult with my own ghosts, I try to imagine what might help bring us humans together, help us to see our inextricable connection to each other and to understand how warped a system of justice is that metes out such vastly unjust consequences for the same acts.
I have been struck in recent days with the massive success of the ALS fundraising “Ice Bucket Challenge”…a lighthearted effort to raise money for and awareness about a heart-heavy, dreadful and deadly disease. I am wondering if a similar campaign, albeit involving more personal risk, could help change both our national conversation and the perceptions that continue to fuel bigotry, intolerance, and fear, both conscious and not.
So here’s a suggestion to nip all of this finger-pointing and self-absolution in the bud and help build bridges of connection and healing. Let’s take a collective breath and share our Pilfering With Privilege stories, white America. Lovingly invite each other to step up, listen to our ghosts, and acknowledge our own capacity for poor judgment, for making mistakes that are a breach of the law. What have you done that could have escalated into serious trouble if discovered or seen through a racial lens? How has your own privilege protected you and your beloveds? What bad decision did your child-self make before you became hard-wired for sound judgment, as most humans do, somewhere in your early to mid 20s?

Let me be the first to tell my story of Pilfering with Privilege. I didn’t palm cigarillos; I stole candy. Not only that, my crime was a betrayal of trust. From time to time (OK, it may have been frequently), I stole a Mallo Cup from the box of candy-for-sale with which I was entrusted during recess when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I have no idea why I did this. Had my own demographics been different and had I been caught, at the least I would have been expelled, at worst prosecuted, possibly ending up in a Juvie program somewhere. And then there are the shoplifting girls. Imagine what the response would have been had they been black, especially black males?

How about you? What story is your ghost whispering in your ear? Muriel Rukeyser observed that the universe is made not of atoms, but of stories. Perhaps telling our stories of the common experience of youthful indiscretion can help create a world of connection and compassion for all of us in our frailty, reinforce our common humanity, stop us from dividing the world into ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones, help us claim and honor the truth of our Oneness.

Please feel free to make yourself vulnerable on this page or anywhere else you choose. If enough people were willing, we could start a public Pilfering With Privilege Campaign; those sufficiently brave and technologically able could video their story  and post it on Facebook. Dumping ice water on ourselves for a worthy cause in a public forum is a very good thing to do, but let’s face it….it’s relatively easy and essentially self-congratulatory. Confronting and acknowledging even one small part of our place and privilege in a structurally unequal system is much more difficult, but is an excellent, courageous, and transformative thing to do, for our good and the good of all. Any volunteers?

Listening Post #16: Lawyers You Can Love

March 4, 2010

I spent Wednesday morning this week getting inspired by a group of lawyers. Not your usual experience of attorneys? Read on and take heart.

This was not my normal Wednesday morning, when I usually listen to people who live on the social margins, hearing not only of  hardships, griefs, mistreatments, but mining the wisdom, enjoying great humor and optimism as well. Fairly frequently, lawyers are the subject of the conversation. Not surprisingly these stories of law and lawyers do not rouse pride in our system of justice. A few examples:

▪ Joanna, an elder  woman who lost her family home of 40 years to foreclosure after an initial shortfall of $800 in a ballooned home equity loan. She had no legal representation: both of the  lawyers she visited insisted upon a retainer of $1500. Having landed in a fetid rooming house, she smiled bitterly: “Now, if I had $1500, would I have been in their offices in the first place?” She was unaware of any other options.[i]

▪ Nate, who unknowingly selected a clueless lawyer to handle his disability appeal. He hasn’t heard from his ‘advocate’ in almost two years, and all of his phone calls go unreturned. He wonders if he dressed better and had more education if he would be treated this way.

▪Those entangled in the criminal system have hair-raising stories of being tossed through courts like pennies….worth something, but not much.

▪ There are frequent, long litanies of unmet legal needs. Many, many people have legal issues so ubiquitous and overwhelming that they simply concede defeat before even attempting to find a remedy, believing that there is no help for them, or it’s too exhausting, or expensive, or that access to justice is available only to the wealthy and to corporate interests. To these women and men, lawyers and the law are more hindrance than help. They need Lady Justice to take off her blindfold in order to see and remove some significant barriers before they can climb up onto those scales of justice.

But this Wednesday morning was spent with lawyers who have taken off the blindfold, with Justice Embodied, the members of the Delivery of Legal Services Committee and public interest community of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Some of the most notable legal minds and hearts in the region have chosen to devote their considerable talents to representing and empowering poor and vulnerable people. In an extraordinary and nationally unprecedented collaboration, they have met for decades on the first Wednesday of every month to discuss and envision how they might do their already impressive work even better.

The individual and collective efforts of this extraordinary group of lawyers have benefited people living on life’s edges in so many ways. They protect children from abuse, whether by their caregivers or the judiciary. They launch the healing of women’s lives through effective advocacy that frees and protects them from abusive relationships and other obstacles.  They advocate for elders and for children, defend our eroded civil  and human rights, prevent foreclosures, assist people who are homeless with a host of legal issues, accompany immigrants through a bewildering legal minefield, secure income, work, health care, and housing for countless individuals and families. Check out more of what these fine folks do.

All of this is in addition to concerted, collaborative efforts to change those systems that create  and perpetuate the conditions keeping people in grinding poverty.  Their passionate dedication as individuals is tangible;  their collective energy is potentially  transformative. And they are working hard at discerning what shape that energy might take.

So to those who have grown cynical and jaded about lawyers, take heart and hope from this. Times are tough, economically, socially, politically; it takes courage to be visionary when the practical, hard-headed impulse is to circle the wagons, tend our own gardens, focus on narrow self-interests. But here are attorneys who are trying to envision and give birth to an equitable and healed justice system, who are  dedicated to changing the untenable status quo. Their passion for justice pervades  their creative hearts and minds, directs the work of their hands, and informs the commitments of their lives. These are lawyers you can love.

[i] Since she lost her home, the lawyers described above have partnered with the judiciary to provide effective relief to owners in danger of losing their homes.

Listening Post #7: Mr. Nobody

June 23, 2009

Mr Nobody

The day I met Freddy was  a particularly wild day on Hagert Street. Annie, a terrifyingly young addict, was literally spinning around the street, crashing after a three-day high. In the midst of this, someone introduced me to Freddy, who has many names, and many reasons for having many names, For this story, he said it was OK to call him Frederick Tyson.

That first day, Freddy told me his name was Tyson, but sometimes, he said, when his spirits were low, he called himself Roman, and asked his friends to do the same. Why? “Because those Romans were strong, and I feel like maybe if I call myself Roman, I’ll feel strong too. And sometimes, it works, But really”, he continued, “my favorite name for myself is Nobody.” My face must have registered some form of dismay, because he quickly added, “No! No! That’s a good thing!” He explained that many years ago he was greatly impressed by a Western film titled “My Name Is Nobody”, starring Henry Fonda, It‘s about a man who traveled the Old West doing good deeds. And whenever the grateful citizenry asked him his name, he replied, ‘Nobody’. “And so,” Fred said, “I figure if you’re Nobody, you can just be whatever people need you to be.”

A few hours later, I saw Frederick Roman Tyson hurrying down the street, arms full of blankets and pillows. I asked what he was doing. “Look,” he gestured. Down the street, young Annie was circling a spot on the sidewalk, beginning to crash. “I know. I know, Freddy said. ”Annie’s just an addict. But even Annie shouldn’t have to sleep on the hard sidewalk.” And with that, he walked down the street, and made her a bed, right there on Hagert Street.

I call him Mr. Nobody now, and he takes it as the honorific it is. Imagine our world if all of us were free enough to be Nothing, to be Nobody. Just  people who notice the needs of our fellow creatures, and simply do what  is within our power to end the suffering.  That’s the world I want to live in.

Listening Post #3: JJ’s Solution to Homelessness

January 5, 2009

One of us froze to death a few weeks ago. I don’t know his real name; some acquaintances in Kensington just called him ‘Handicap’ because he had only one leg and navigated via wheelchair. The coroner sent around a picture of his frozen face to see if anyone could identify him. Few details are known.

Hagert Street Hotel

Hagert Street Hotel

On these cold deep-freeze nights, I sit by the fire, think about ‘Handicap’, and wonder who is hanging out at the Hagert Street Hotel, the abandoned loading dock that attracts a handful of sleepy people seeking a slab of concrete to call bed for the night. A range of emotions rush through my head and heart: shame that anyone is out there freezing while I stay toasty and comfortable: gratitude for those who have made ending homelessness their raison d’être: sorrow for all of the failed relationships and fragmented families who have tried to hold on to disturbed loved ones, but lacking social supports and resources, have let them slip out into the night: anger that we as a society create this condition and can’t find the will to solve the problem. I feel part of a collective numbness, hearts chilled by winds of self interest and isolation that prevent us from feeling the grief of a brother’s death-by-freezing.

I don’t know what the answer is, but JJ says he does. JJ, a man who has been homeless, lived at the airport for extended periods of time (and no, not at the Marriott), and is currently feeling lucky to have found “a lady-friend” to shelter him for a time, has a challenging solution for all to consider. How to end homelessness? “Everyone who has space needs to take in one person,” he said. “That’s all. I did it myself three times when I had a place of my own. It has to be personal.”

That’s ALL? I know. Utopian. Unrealistic. How make room for a family with no place to go, the fastest growing category of people who are homeless? Or how house a serious addict or schizophrenic and stay sane yourself? But JJ’s point is really about personalism and empathy, about understanding that the plight of another is part of our own story, necessitating some response from each of us simply because we are all connected; we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Project H.O.M.E.’s motto says it all “None of us are home until all of us are home.”

JJ is onto something; we won’t all be home until the reality and risk of one of us freezing to death is personal, until such a tragedy burns through our own numbness, touches our hearts, and moves every one of us to action. And surely, we all can make space enough to do Something. One small, first step. A contribution. A phone call. Asking Someone’s name next time we walk by. Offering a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Or a bed. As JJ suggests and did himself, making the issue personal.

One of us froze to death a few weeks ago. But we could all be home.


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