Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How do you define "expert"?

I don't remember where or when or who said it, but many years ago, someone said, "The definition of an expert is someone who has been flown in from out of town." I still chuckle when I think of it that way. I have attended many conferences and workshops in my lifetime. I have led many workshops and events in my lifetime. I haven't often been referred to as an expert, but I have been asked and expected to dole out expert opinions on many topics - homeschooling, breast kanswer, the Bible, faith, Spain, travel, packing light, journal writing, just to name a few. I am not an expert on any of those things, but I do have years of experience in all of those things.

I heard part of a segment on NPR yesterday morning that got me thinking about this question -  "how do you define expert?" - and connected it to the Thursday night class my new friend, Patrice, is leading with great distinction. Yesterday's piece is entitled, "Charlotte Talks: Ex-Offenders and Challenges on Transitioning back to Society." In this segment, one gentleman, who is himself an ex-offender, spoke about his experiences and about the difficult transition out of prison and back into the world. A world that is increasingly more difficult to navigate after incarceration. A world that denies those who have been imprisoned, those who have been accused, those who have been charged, the option of public housing, food aid support, school loans, college admission, and many job opportunities.

And on top of that, convicted felons are disenfranchised in many states; they can never vote again. That's right; even after you've paid your debt, after you've served your sentence, you cannot vote. You cannot serve on a jury. You cannot obtain many professional licenses - even if the license you seek is in no way connected to any crime you may have committed. It is legal in every state to discriminate against former inmates in nearly every aspect of their lives. They emerge from prison with debt - for their stay, their uniforms, any back child support, their lawyer fees, and many other fees - but then they are unable to find work or live in affordable housing, even with family members. Because landlords have the right to evict tenants from their homes, even if the tenant hasn't committed a crime. But if a family member or caregiver or friend is accused of a crime or is a formerly incarcerated person, the resident of the home can be evicted. How can anyone be surprised that so many people end up back in prison? Many cannot find a job or a place to live. Those who find jobs often have their wages garnished to cover all the aforementioned fees and costs, and some have 100% of their wages garnished. Did you catch that? Every penny that they earn from their jobs is taken away to pay debts. No one can live that way. No one should have to live that way.

Anyway, Gemini Boyd, the main interviewee on the Charlotte Talks segment, asked a great question of his interviewer. He wondered why his story, his experiences in and with the incarceration system, and his subsequent work to establish BOLT, Building Outstanding Lives Together, a youth intervention foundation, didn't count as those of an expert? Why should he need to have a title after his name in order to offer advice, suggestions, and make an impact in the way our country treats and mistreats its criminals - or those accused of crime? Perhaps, in this case, an expert isn't someone who has been flown in from out of town, someone with several advanced degrees on criminal justice and jurisprudence, but rather is someone who has felt the boot of the criminal justice and jurisprudence system on his neck - and has emerged relatively whole and strong - right here in our hometown.

On the first night of this Educate to Engage series, we drew up a long list of "group agreements," giving voice to the ways in which we would interact with each other during the six gatherings. Here is a sampling of our group agreements - we would not cut each other off when someone was speaking or have side conversations. We would treat each other with respect, and also we would allow for the participants to be experts in their own lives and experiences, especially as it relates to our main topic of conversation - the mass incarceration system.

Last Thursday at the fourth of our six sessions, we were given the opportunity to live out that final agreement. Two of the group participants served as experts on this issue of mass incarceration - because both of them have experienced it firsthand. One of them shared his perspective on education in school and education in life - and how "education" has affected his life, for better and for worse. He talked about the challenges of finding work after having to "check the box," the one on nearly every job application and every housing application: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime? If yes, explain below." He talked about the difficulty of explaining his situation, telling his story, and taking the chance that he won't get hired, that he won't be able to live in a certain place. He expressed surprise at the number of people in the room who claimed to have never had similar experiences.

We live such separate and unequal lives.
Once convicted, many roads, many options are cut off.
Never convicted, most roads, most options are open and available.
In some cases, conviction isn't even necessary.
Simple suspicion is enough to warrant and permit discrimination.
Our nation's attorney general recently reinstated a policy that allows cities and towns to confiscate property from individuals suspected of criminal activity. You don't even have to be charged with a crime to have your property taken by the police, permanently.
What the what???
In the United States of America - the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Yes, indeed.


So this young man took a chance and told us the truth.
His truth. His story. His experience.
He has a college degree, but that doesn't offset or override his "ex-con" status.
He handed out business cards at the end of class -
since many companies won't hire him, he has created his own small business.
Handy man. Plumber. Electrician. No job too small.
He is an expert in survival. In working hard.


How do you define "expert"?
We may not have multiple degrees or titles behind our names.
We are all experts in and experts on our own lives.
We each have so much to tell and to teach one another.
We are each an expert - and we are surrounded by experts.
Imagine what this country and this world could look like if we treated each other that way.

No one with a title behind their name can possibly know that young man's experience before, in, and after incarceration. No one can possible understand his particular challenges, any more than anyone can know yours or mine.

As long as we keep ostracizing, isolating, rejecting, stigmatizing, and perpetually criminalizing each other, as long as we continue to dismiss the harrowing experiences and accounts of injustice told by the poor, the underserved, and the black and brown people in this country, the more separate and unequal our nation will become.

The more we ignore the stories told by people whose perspectives we don't share,
people whose suffering we cannot fathom,
people whose experiences reveal how privileged and protected many of us are,
the easier it is to cling to that definition of expert that I heard so long ago -
someone who is flown in from out of town.

Because if the people who live under the highway,
if the people who live in tents behind the hospital,
if the people who have survived prison and are eager to transition back into society and contribute to society,
if the people who are being evicted from their affordable homes in order to build more condos,
if these people actually are our neighbors here in Charlotte,
if these people actually are experts on how to survive with very little,
if these people actually have good ideas on how to solve these major social crises,
then something might actually have to change in this city we call home.
Justice might actually be done and equity might actually be achieved.

So I ask again, how do you define "expert"?
Whose expert advice do we all need to hear and heed?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Strike a Pose

If you were asked to strike a pose that represents the word "fear," what would you do with your body? Would you cower and crouch down on the ground? Would you hide behind your hands?

What if you were supposed to enact "courage?" Would you defiantly put your hands on your waist and stare out at the world with a powerful gaze?

And how would you explain, express, or enact a moment of transition between fear and courage? Might that pose include you peeking up from your hiding place? Perhaps standing up straight with a curious glance in one direction on the other?

Last night at the third of the six week series on The New Jim Crow, Amalia Deloney led us through a practice that emerged from the Theater of the Oppressed - you can read a little bit about it here and here. She explained "image theater" to us and then asked us to strike a pose, enacting words related to oppression, liberation, and the transition from the former to the latter.

The exercise we engaged in pushed us to ask and answer these questions - What happens in our minds when we hear certain words, when we are asked to respond to those words, when we allow our bodies to reveal what our minds have understood? And then, how do we explain how we decided to strike the pose we have struck?

And all those questions got me thinking about more questions.

How does my mind respond, how does my body respond when I read that a friend of mine was held up at gunpoint down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, yesterday?

How does my mind respond, how does my body respond when I hear that someone dear to someone I love has been diagnosed with stage 4 kanswer?

How does my mind respond, how does my body respond when my twenty year old son texts me at midnight and tells me that he is about to leave a friend's house and drive home?


How do the minds and bodies of young children respond when they are asked to read a book out loud - especially when those young children are struggling with reading on their grade level? Do they make excuses for why they can't figure out the words? Do they claim to be tired, too tired to have to keep doing their work? Do they look up from the book and begin to tell stories unrelated to the book in order to avoid reading? Do their minds conjure up self-sabotaging statements like, "I can't do this"? "This is boring."

What pose can I strike that helps them realize that they don't have to make excuses?
They don't have to make up stories.
They don't have to guess at the words.
I'm there to read with them, not embarrass them.
I'm there to help them sound out new words, not shame them for what they don't yet know.
How can I use my face, my hands, my body to express to them that they are safe with me?
That they can relax and trust that we will work through this tough word,
this convoluted story together?

And what happens when those same kids become teenagers and they are still uncomfortable reading and writing? What happens when they are teased by classmates and humiliated by teachers and others in authority over them? What poses do they strike then? Do they put their hands on their hips with exaggerated bravado and turn into frightened, defensive, aggressive bullies? Do they drop out of school and drop into a life of violence, crime, and drugs? Do they find themselves striking a pose in a police precinct having their photos taken, from the front, the sides, and the back?

What they do not and cannot fully comprehend at their young ages is that the first time they strike that prisoner pose, they are being ushered into a system that will never let them go. Jail. Prison. Parole. Probation. Loss of the right to vote, to sit on a jury, to obtain public assistance if they need it, public housing, school loans, many jobs. All of which are the themes of The New Jim Crow. It's reminds me of that famous line from the old Eagles song, Hotel California, that says, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." But the mass incarceration system of the United State of America does not let you check out anytime you like. Nor can you ever leave. The label "felon" holds you captive for life.


What if a few hours of tutoring,
helping elementary school students learn to read more confidently,
teaching middle school students the joy and fun and freedom of journaling,
encouraging high school and college age young people to put their words on paper,
to tell their stories,
reminding them that their stories matter,
that their black lives matter,
that their immigrant lives matter,
that their existence matters,
that their stories matter,
that their words matter -
what if just a few hours spent with a few kids makes a difference somehow?
What if a few hours of personal attention, of encouragement, of dependable presence matter?

Let's forget about the kids for a moment... well, let's never forget about the kids.
But let's take a look in the mirror for a moment.

What poses are we striking these days?
Especially when someone mentions race and racism?
Poverty and wealth?
Crime and drug addiction?
Politics and the government?
Police brutality and repeated acquittals for killing unarmed and innocent people?
Do our shoulders drop in shame or fear?
Do our spines stiffen with anger or indignation?
Do we turn and look away, hoping the subject will change?
Do we pretend to be asleep, so that we don't have to talk about these topics at all?

Speaking of being asleep, what pose would you strike if someone asked you to enact the word "asleep"? That's actually a pretty easy word to act out. Shut your eyes. Lay down. Sit on a comfortable chair. Put your feet up. Turn away from everyone and everything around you.

How would your mind respond, how would your body respond if you heard the word "awake"?
If you heard the phrase "Stay 'woke," what would you do with your body?
Now that you are hearing all these tragic stories of injustice and murder,
now that you are becoming aware of the racism and hate that are so prevalent in our country,
now that many of the tragedies that have been described are being videotaped,
what does it mean to "stay 'woke"? To stay alert?
To act on what you are now awakened to?
Because once you wake up, you can't go back to sleep on this stuff.
Once you see what you are seeing, you cannot "unsee" it.
I know I can't.

Over the past few months, when I think about writing a blog post, I often hold back because I am repeatedly drawn back to these difficult, uncomfortable, impolite, inconvenient, un-funny issues and topics. It's not that I'm not thankful on Thursdays anymore. It's just that sometimes writing a gratitude post feels so superficial when people are living on the street. When people are dying in the street. When people are being tossed out onto the street because of "urban renewal" and "gentrification." It's increasingly difficult to write lists of the things I'm privileged to eat, drink, and do with my free time when some of the children I've met and read with may not have anything to eat for dinner tonight.

So I find myself, like my classmates last night, figuring out what my transitional poses are.
I find it increasingly necessary to a pose that depicts my current state of being between being asleep and staying 'woke. Here are few of the poses I've been striking lately -

* sitting next to rising first graders, reading with them, asking them questions about the books we read, watching them draw pictures of scenes they remember from the books we've read
* standing in front of 30 rising fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, telling them that their lives do matter, and they they can pick a notebook and write down or draw out the stories of their lives that they want to tell
* looking up into the face of a homeless man, HIV positive, riddled with anxiety, so much so that he cannot even sleep at men's shelters because the presence of so many people incites unmitigated panic, listening to his story, crying with him as he talked about his wife's recent death due to kanswer, his subsequent house fire, and how he has had to use his Social Security money to pay for his wife's grave plot, not able to do anything but listen and cry and give him a hug before he took the bus to part of Charlotte where he has established his campsite.
* sitting and looking up, watching and listening to Patrice as she drops gems of wisdom into the center of the room every Thursday night, as she firmly challenges people deeply mired in patterns of self-centeredness and domination to wake up, and as she refuses to let any of us fall back asleep in our silos of safety.

Last night, as I walked around my classmates, pondering the poses they were striking,
as I listened to their stories of encounters with police,
stories of their children's encounters with police,
stories of white privilege and white fragility,
stories of fear and anger,
stories of hope and courage,
of determination and action,
as I watched Patrice and Amalia watch us wrestle with concepts we've never learned before,
I was thankful for our individual and collective humility to
strike a pose
as students, as apprentices,
as newly awakened co-travelers on this journey
towards wholeness,
towards knowledge,
towards power,
towards healing,
towards hope,
towards justice.

Please consider joining us.
Please consider joining the movement wherever you are.
Please wake up, stand up, and act up.


PS. I guess it was a Thankful Thursday after all.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What Retaining Wall?

We moved into our house nearly fifteen years ago. Time really does fly! 

At the time that we moved into our home, there was a large piece of property just outside of our neighborhood that was owned by a single family. At least twenty acres. We couldn't even see the house from the road because of all the trees. Then they sold to a developer who cut down 90% of the trees. They built two model homes, a couple of other houses - and then building stopped when the economy crashed. During the time of their sabbatical, we watched as the property fell into disrepair. No one lived in any of the houses, even though they held regular open houses in the model homes. One corner of the recently shorn landscape fell off into a deep ravine, a mud pit that collected rainwater and North Carolina's famous red clay. Yuck. Yikes. As the years passed, the hole seemed to get bigger. As we passed the property, we would shake our heads and declare that they would never be able to build a house there. 

But they did. They built houses all along what used to be that deep ravine. They backfilled it with dirt - presumably from other places in the development - and built one huge house after the other. In the spot that we deemed the worst possible place to build a house (we swore they wouldn't dare!), the builders erected a retaining wall below the base of the stilts that held up the back deck. 

Just over a week ago, as I enjoyed my morning walk, I looked at the back of that house and the retaining wall had collapsed. I figured that the previous weeks of drought that had been followed by days and nights of torrential rain had been the cause. That, and the fact that they never should have built a house there in the first place.  


If you take a close look at the photo above, you can see a tarp of some kind covering the collapsed wall and the clay and dirt that had slid out from behind the wall. The workers standing on top of the tarp had a look of dazed disbelief, walking around with their hands on their hips for several moments. (I know because I stood there and stared far too long in my own cloud of dazed disbelief.)

If you look at the photo below, you can see the width of the house and the width of the disaster.


I stopped and stared the first time I saw it. I tried to imagine what it had sounded like as it slid down. I wondered if the homeowners had even heard it or if perhaps they had wandered out onto the back deck one morning and looked down - only to find that what they thought had been a solid foundation had literally been washed out from under them. I wondered if they had noticed cracks in the walls inside the house or perhaps an imbalance out on the deck.

The photos below show the work that is being done now, work to shore up the ground under the house, under the deck, under their very lives. It looks like they are bringing in rocks and layering them in the backyard, presumably to help with drainage. It looks like they are preparing to build another retaining wall.


I'm not a huge worrier. I'm human, so I worry, but I don't worry all the time. I worry about money, about running out of money. I worry about the health and safety of people I love, and even people I don't particularly love. I worry about car accidents and having the kanswer come back. But not all the time, not even most of the time. However, if I lived in that house, and the retaining wall had fallen down behind our house, I think I would worry about that all the time. Because even though they are getting it fixed, how can they not jump out of bed and check that wall every morning? How can they trust that it won't give way again? Literally, the foundation of the place they call home couldn't sustain the weight of their lives.


All of that got me to thinking.

How many of us have watched the foundations of our lives collapse beneath us?
How many of us have watched the lives of our loved ones destroyed by people and situations that are out of their control?

A devastating diagnosis.
A job loss.
An encounter with a police officer that ended tragically.
A family that imploded or disintegrated.
An election that ushered a tyrant, a despot, a dangerous leader into power.
A house fire or a break in.
War and rumors of war.
Bankruptcy.
Being arrested on false charges and being pressured to accept a plea bargain for a crime you didn't even commit.
Losing a job, losing a spouse, and losing a home - all in the same year. (I recently met someone who has experienced that trifecta of terribleness.)

What do we do then? Who do we turn to for help in rebuilding?
How do we handle the droughts and the floods in our lives?
The losses and devastation that life inevitably brings our way?
Who stands with us in the middle of the mess, hands on hips, spreading tarps over our brokenness, so that we can take the necessary time to determine possible solutions?
Who leans in close to us, with their arms around our shoulders, tissues, casseroles, and cookies at the ready, keeping us company as we cautiously reconstruct our battered and busted foundations in spite of our overwhelming, dazed disbelief?

Who are the retaining walls in your life?
Where are the retaining walls in my life?
What are the retaining walls in our lives?

Family.
Friends.
Faith.
Hope.
Grace.
Forgiveness.
Truth.
Community.

I am enormously blessed and grateful when I look back on my life and realize that
even though there have certainly been foundational shifts in my life,
even though I have done more than my fair share of stupid and dangerous things,
some of which have endangered my life's foundations,
even though kanswer sucks, always has, and always will,
even though bipolar disorder sucks,
even though job loss fractures finances and families,
even though racism is real and life-threatening,
even though much, if not most, of what I hold dear will eventually collapse under the weight of life itself,
even though I could add trial after tribulation after trouble to this list,
I have never gone through these trials alone.
Ever.
There have always been companions on this journey.
I am so grateful.

And then there is God.
For all the times I feel like God is silent,
for all the times I wish God would act decisively and directly,
for all the times I cry out for healing, for restoration, for wholeness
in my own life, in my family, in my city, and in the whole world,
for all that I have ever experienced and ever will experience,
God has been my retaining wall.
God has been my strong tower,
my rock and my fortress,
my redeemer and my deliverer.
The One who loves me most.
The One I love most of all.