the problem with proximal power

17 Oct

From a middle-class, white-collar white cis-woman to other middle-class white collar white cis-women.

When the call came from an unknown number, I answered because I was waiting for a tow-truck to come and remove a rusted-on flat tire and was hopeful it was the driver calling with an estimated time.

“Hiya, Sweetie!” I heard in a Texas twang.

My body instantly tightened and my adrenaline started running.

“Can I help you?” I asked, with obvious impatience in my voice.

“This is your tow-truck driver, sweetie! I’m just calling to let you know I’ll be there in about 15 minutes.”

“Fine, thank you.” And I hung up.

Flash back to earlier in the week, when we had needed an electrician to come do some work on the house. I work at home, so it makes sense that I am the person who handles this sort of thing. Plus, I knew what needed to be done. The guy who came was a former marine and we chatted amicably a bit. After a few minutes, though, he came over and tapped the buttons that I always wear. 

“Before I start, I have a problem with this one” he said, tapping the Black Lives Matter pin on my clavicle.

I froze. Then we engaged in a conversation around why I wear the pins. I was tense the whole time – this guy was in my house and was definitely capable of overpowering me. Thankfully, it was nothing like the story Sarah Suze told on twitter of trying to sell her dryer, but you never know when these things can turn, do you? Eventually, I left the conversation and went to try to do something else while he did his work. I was exhausted when he left.

After I hung up the phone with the tow-truck driver, I turned to my spouse. “You have to handle this,” I told him. “I just can’t.”

He looked at me gently. I am usually the one who interfaces with people. I am the outgoing and friendly one. And I just couldn’t.  I was so thankful he was around. And I was so thankful I wasn’t stuck on the side of the road somewhere by myself, with this my only option.

When the truck pulled up, my spouse went out to to talk to them. First, an older Black man hopped out of the passenger side. And then a very friendly Latinx man exited the driver side. He was obviously the one with the Texas twang who had called me “sweetie.”

And all my fear disappeared.

I went outside, told them what was going on, and they removed the rusted on tire. They went on their way, I went mine, and I have been thinking about this encounter ever since.

Why did my fear disappear as soon as I saw who the men were? As soon as I saw they weren’t white.

The answer, which it took me a while to come to because I am a bit slow sometimes, is power. As a middle-class , white-collar white cis-woman, I have more power than those guys. In this way, I am a beneficiary of the systems of white supremacy ingrained in this country.

But the power that I have isn’t absolute, as I was reminded with the electrician. It is proximal power – power that comes from being white, being in proximity to those with the most power: white men.  

Sometimes, we white women mistake this proximal power for our own inherent power. We align ourselves with the white men, with the oppressors, rather than with others who are oppressed.  As Rebecca Traister aptly points out “White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy’s most eager foot soldiers.” So true.  

In Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin observed that “From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be.”

But when white men choose, they can take white women’s proximal power away. We see this most starkly with rape culture, where they protect their own and put the onus on a woman not to be raped rather than on a man not to rape, but this is not the only way it manifests. Mansplaining, interrupting, gaslighting, sea-lioning – all these bullying techniques, techniques designed to “keep women in their place”  are ways that white men strip away the proximal power of white women.

White women having proximal power that can be taken away puts us in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, which is exploited by white men’s divide and conquer tactics.  When we choose the illusion of safety and proximal power of our whiteness over the liberation of others, when we align ourselves with those in power, we forget that our proximal power is only that which is allowed. We forget that when we try to claim our power it is easily “written off as loudmouthed hysteria, or the dubious ravings of pussy-hatted suburbanites with itchy Etsy trigger fingers” (Traister). We are labeled nasty, impolite arrogant women who persist despite being told to be silent.

Our proximal power, which we think will protect us, often does the exact opposite. In the hierarchy of women, Dr. Christine Ford is at the top: white, cis, hetero, professional, well-educated. And white men ripped the carpet out from under her, didn’t they?  We white women benefit from systems like capitalism, colonization, and white supremacy but these systems were not made to give us our own power and so we are easily ignored, dismissed as hysterical.

And yet, look at what Dr. Ford’s courage has inspired! Men like Trump and McConnell have no idea the beast that they have unleashed, gliby commenting that it will all blow over. They have no idea that white women are waking to the illusion of proximal power and instead claiming our real power, which is a power-with instead of a power-over.

Some of us are a bit late to this party. Women of color have been telling us this for a long time, but we haven’t listened. Many of us haven’t felt as though we needed to listen because we thought the white men would protect us. We were wrong.

Our real power comes when align ourselves with others, like women of color, who are fighting for liberation. It comes when we stop seeking or expecting protection, much less permission, of white men. When we stop apologizing. Stop being polite, stop trying to keep the peace. Stop all the things that keep us in our place. We gain real power, power-with, when we resist the divide and conquer tactics and align ourselves with the liberation of others.

So what do we do? Once we realize our proximal power is so easily taken away, how do we begin to claim a more true, whole power-with?

It begins with listening to those who’ve been in this fight longer than us. Women of color, particularly Black women, know the landscape – they know how to sustain themselves over the long haul that is ahead. Listen to women of color, immigrants, and those from other marginalized communities.

It means standing up for ourselves. When that electrician tapped my pins, rather than trying to engage him in a conversation I should have loudly said that his touching me was unacceptable and asked him to leave. Scary stuff, I know, but how many times do we just accept it when we are cat-called, groped on the bus, mansplained on social media? We need to stop just saying “Oh, that will happen” and start enforcing our boundaries loudly and unignorably.

It means becoming a tribe with other women, no matter their age, race, creed, socio-economic status, etc. When we see another women being harassed or belittled, we must clearly, strongly and publicly align ourselves with her, whether that is in real life or online.  It means that, should we decide to #WomensStrike, we support those of us who are unable to rather than belittling them and further alienating them.

It means being humble when other women, particularly ones from marginalized communities, point out our growing edges. We have much to learn.

It means expanding our definition of allies: people across the gender spectrum, people across the sexual orientation spectrum, people with disabilities. This is intersectional work, and we need one another. Our liberation is all tied up together.

Finally, we need to stop making excuses for the male-identified people we love. We need to bring them along on our journeys and help them learn how to be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem. This isn’t always easy – they have even more unlearning to do than we do, more privilege that is at stake. They are often fragile and emotional and may feel attacked when we stand up for ourselves. There are some great articles online on how to do this.

When we do this, when we realize who our true allies and accomplices are in this fight, when we learn to listen with humility and allow ourselves to grow, then we will recognize the sham of proximal power and embrace our true power and use it for the liberation of all.

Paying Attention

4 Apr

This is for my White friends and acquaintances who I still see talking about #JesusChristSuperstarLive but who aren’t talking about the role race played in the show.

I don’t normally watch the “Live TV” events that occasionally happen because I find them pretty awkward, but I will confess I was excited about NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It is a musical that I love and the cast looked fantastic. I figured we would give it a try.

The opening was amazing, but when Mary (played exquisitely by Sara Bareilles) began her iconic Everything’s Alrightmy focus shifted and I realized that I wasn’t just watching a new staging of an award-winning musical; I was watching a commentary on black/white relations in the United States: Mary, a White woman, was pleading with Judas and Jesus (played by two Black men who knew things were escalating towards disaster) to calm down and not take things so seriously. “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh. Don’t you know, everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”

White friends – Did you notice this? Did you notice that it was a White woman who was telling these Black men to calm down. How often do we White people get uncomfortable at Black rage? How often do wetone police? And here it was, starkly presented, right here before 9.4 million viewers, most of whom were probably white.

We’ve seen before how flipping the racial narrative on a cast can give new understanding to an old story. Hamilton, anyone? If we want to become allies, the first steps are to educate ourselves and to pay attention.  #JesusChristSuperstarLive can give us a lens into our own commitment level to confronting racism and white supremacy, especially in the context of systemic oppression via police brutality, militarism and the prison/torture industrial complex.  Here are eight other ways that I caught (and I know I didn’t catch it all) that race played an essential role in the production:

1) Having a Black Jesus.  I don’t know about how other white people grew up, but Jesus was never ever black in the traditions of my experience. At best, and I mean at very best, he was a bit brown. But even that was unusual.White people seem to get upset when Jesus is portrayed as anything other than White. I would link to site after site trying to argue that fact, but I don’t want to push traffic that way. Look it up yourselves: many White people can’t handle that Jesus was not White. But he wasn’t. Having a Black Jesus is an important corrective to the dominant narrative. Especially as we will see below.  Seeing someone who looks like you on tv, in books, in advertising, in the toys children play with – this sort of representation is crucially important. We know this. From the chatter I’ve seen on facebook from Black friends, having a Black Jesus was absolutely a game-changer.

2) Having a Black Judas. Now, Judas has been portrayed as black before. In fact, Judas (played by Carl Anderson) was one of only a few black characters in the 1973 movie Jesus Christ Superstar. What was new here in #JesusChristSuperstarLive was the dynamic between a Black Judas and a Black Jesus. In the song Heaven on Their Minds, Judas sings “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race? Don’t you see we must keep in our place? We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are?” These lyrics take on a totally different meaning when Judas is singing to another Black man. We are reminded of the distinction Chris Hayes introduced many of us to in his book A Colony in a Nation, which highlights many of the ways that Black communities and Black men in particular are treated as if they were unruly colonists who must be controlled and managed by those in power.

(The fact that the part of Judas was played by Brandon Victor Dixon, who gave the Hamilton cast speech when VP Mike Pence attended & who did a Wakanda salute at the end, just added to the awesomeness.)

3) Notice how both Herod and Pilate are White. The men making the decisions, the men with the power, are White. Just like 7 in 10 senior executives and just like the vast majority of our elected national representatives in the House and Senate. Yeah, Pilate may be tortured about his decision, but he also caved under pressure. How many of us white people have done something similar? Maybe we have cringed silently and not spoken up when we we were in a situation with a work colleague spouting racist ideas. Maybe we strive towards being colorblind and don’t even realize how we are unwittingly contributing to racism.

4) So now you might be saying, “But Caiaphas was black!” And that is true -Norm Lewis was amazing in the role. But Caiaphas, as a Pharisee, didn’t have the power to have Jesus arrested on his own, did he? He just made the recommendation to Pilate (a White guy), who had the actual power. Having the Pharisees all be people of color invoked classic Uncle Tom imagery of a Black man who sells out his race in order to get a little power – just like the slave drivers who would beat their own for whatever scraps the white slave master would throw his way. Dynamics of divide and conquer and starvation economics where there isn’t enough power so we grab what we can are both at work in this dynamic. I’m reading Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood right now and the passages on the creation of apartheid are stunning to me in that this was a system that was intentionally created to turn the black Africans against one another by giving different groups different sets of rights. How else do you control a population 4 times as large as your own? It is a stunningly effective strategy for mass oppression.

5) Let’s go to Mary again. This time, singing I Don’t Know How to Love Him when she asks in the chorus “Should I bring him down, should I scream and shout? Should I speak of love, let my feelings out?” – How many of us White people are in that situation? We are trying to be allies, but we don’t really know what to do. Do we join the with the anger? Do we fight back with love? What does it really mean to be a White ally to Black people in the United States in 2018? It can get complicated and confusing. But unfortunately, our confusion and our fear of making a mistake often leads us to wring our hands and offer vague comfort from afar.

steps

Steps to Ask Yourself Before Calling the Police

6) When the police show up in Gethsemane, Judas kisses Jesus and they embrace, and the police try to pull Jesus away. Judas has suddenly realized how this is not going the way he expected, and he holds on to Jesus and tries to pull him away from the police. Judas learned the hard way: if you call the police on a Black man, prepare for it escalating. White people, in particular but not exclusively, who think the police are benevolent forces of law and order often have a difficult time realizing that a call to the police about something innocuous like vandalism might result in the murder of an innocent Black man with a cell-phone in his backyard. In case you are wondering, there are some excellent online resources for trying to determine whether you should call the police.

7) After Jesus is taken away and Peter has betrayed him, Mary comes to comfort Peter – to offer him forgiveness. Both of them are non-black. While they are both rightfully upset, they turn and walk away. They have the privilege to be able to sit with each other, comforting one another, while Judas and Jesus are both tortured (Judas internally) and die. How often do we, as White allies, return to our bubbles to lick our wounds? What would it be like if Mary and Peter had gone to Judas and included him in their circle of grief? Instead, far too often, we retreat instead of laying our lives down on the line for the beloved community that we crave. What would it look like if we didn’t let each other off the hook quite so easily?

8) This last one is about what you didn’t see rather than what you did. Rather than invoke the imagery of a slave receiving a whipping by having Black Jesus flogged, the creative choice was made (brilliantly, in my opinion) to instead have different members of the community beat Jesus. Yes, it showed up as whip-marks on his back, but in this case, it is Jesus’s own extended community that turned on him. How often and in how many ways do we turn on the Black men in our community? Eric Garner shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes. Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun. Stephon Clark shouldn’t have..what? Been in his grandmother’s backyard with a cell phone? We blame the Black victim – sometimes because we are trying to make sense of a situation that makes no reasonable sense and other times to try to protect ourselves from a world of violence that feels out of our control. But the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. As White people, we have power and we need to use it to end systems of oppression like our prison industrial system, policing system, and work for solutions like felon voting rights. Can you imagine what our country might look like if 2.3 million Black men weren’t incarcerated? If 1 in 8 of them weren’t disenfranchised from voting?

So there you have it. Here are just 9 (including the first Mary example) creative decisions, brilliantly made, that expose a mainstream audience to the epidemic of violence against Black men. And I know I missed quite a few.

I had no idea when turning it on that this new production of Jesus Christ Superstar would be an allegory for what it means to be a Black man in the United States in 2018. #JesusChristSuperstarLive used an old story to offer a new challenge to those of us who wish to be White allies: Pay attention, and then go educate ourselves on how systemic racism and white supremacy culture are alive in the United States today, so that we might be a part of the solution.

long committee meetings and why few people are willing to attend them.

6 Mar
We have 200 children in RE and 8 teachers recruited.

photo credit: Joy Berry

So you are a leader in your congregation and you are having a difficult time finding volunteers for the XYZ committee. You feel like you’ve tried everything – advertising in the newsletter, asking people directly, but still, it is the same few folks who say “Yes” and they are getting burned out. You are worried about what the future might hold. You wonder: Is your congregation alone in this struggle?

Absolutely not. Many congregations are struggling with this same issue. And there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. So let’s take a few minutes to look at why congregations are struggling, and then look at a a few possibilities to think about.

There are three primary reasons why the volunteer landscape is not as lush as it once was: time, commitment, and relevance. Once upon a time, long ago, many congregations could rely on a stable volunteer force: stay at home mothers. They ran the church – from volunteering in the church office, to religious education classrooms, to music/membership/worship committees and so on. But in these days where many families have two working parents, this is no longer a viable source of volunteers (and indeed, it hasn’t been for quite a while). Parents, in particular, are pulled in many different directions as their children’s sports, music, art, and academic enrichment programs keep them hopping each evening. When families can barely find time to eat dinner together once a week, how can we expect them to make time for a 2+ hour committee meeting? Many of our congregations are still structured in a way that depends on exactly these folks and we find that the same people who were volunteering when their children were young thirty (or so) years ago are still the go-to volunteers when it comes to operating the church today.

Combined with a lack of time, many congregants today are also struggling with making the commitment to an ongoing volunteer position. We see this in the way they pledge, as well. Many people don’t want others to rely on them in case they (or a family member) gets sick and needs care, or if their work schedule changes, or if they’ve just had a rough week and need a night off. In their minds, it is better to not make the commitment than it is to let someone down. For many years, nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteers have found that the number of people interested and available for key volunteer positions (which require an ongoing commitment) has dropped off dramatically. However, this does not mean people are not willing to volunteer in other ways – the number of people willing to volunteer episodically has risen dramatically. Episodic volunteers participate sporadically (perhaps only certain times of the year) and volunteer without an ongoing commitment.

Finally, volunteers are concerned about relevance. In those long gone halcyon days, church was often the center of a congregant’s social life, and as such featured long committee meetings with loosely structured conversation, often complemented by drinks and snacks. Today, however, volunteers are usually not looking to make the congregation the hub of their social lives. Instead, they want to know that the work they are doing is important and has meaning and is directly tied to the mission and impact of the congregation. They want the time they put in to be efficiently utilized and impactful in the community. It isn’t that they don’t want their volunteering to have a social component – far from it, but having a social component to a relevant, efficient volunteer opportunity is different than a volunteer opportunity that (intentionally or unintentionally) centers the social and puts the work as secondary.

So what might adjusting to this new(ish) volunteer landscape look like at congregations, where volunteers are often difficult to find due to time, commitment and relevance issues? Interestingly enough, I think that the three factors impacting the volunteer landscape are the same three factors congregations can use to address the issue.

First, since potential volunteers have less time than they used to have, a congregation would benefit from having flexible ways to participate. Allowing participation from teleconferencing software such as zoom enables people to stay at home and still participate. For each committee, evaluate whether the standard monthly 2-hour meeting is really necessary, or if perhaps shorter meetings, or less frequent ones, might be possible to get the work done. Because many congregations are still using the committee structure of a generation (or two) ago, and often just keep adding on new ones, it would also behoove congregations to look at what work is essential to the mission of the church and what might you stop doing, in order to do that which remains even better.

In terms of commitment, congregations would benefit from looking to see how they could better use episodic, task-oriented volunteers. For instance, is it possible to have an usher/dishwasher/greeter/fill-in-position-here checklist so that someone who shows up and wants to help on Sunday can easily follow what to do? Episodic volunteers sometimes find the work so fulfilling that they want to volunteer more, so having commitment tiers (low, moderate, high) of volunteer opportunities allows a volunteer to contribute in more meaningful ways as their commitment to the congregation grows.

Finally, to address concerns about relevance, it is essential to make the connection between the volunteer opportunity (whether it is episodic or key, low/moderate/high commitment level) and the mission of the congregation. How does this volunteer opportunity serve the congregation and/or larger community? How does it bring our values and our faith alive? What will a volunteer expect to get out of the experience? This can get done at an orientation, or during the opportunity itself, or in a volunteer appreciation event the congregation might hold.

The volunteer landscape has changed substantially in the last fifty years, and our religious communities need to adjust as well. Volunteers are an essential human resource to accomplish the mission of the congregation and to keep the doors open. Volunteerism thrives in organizations where there are multiple ways to contribute and where the expectations are clearly stated and connected to the mission of the organization. It is essential to approach this task and manage volunteers at least as carefully (if not moreso) than a congregation manages its financial resources.

the changing face of entrepreneurs.

2 Feb

I have passed this billboard more times than I can count in the past few months, traveling hither and yon across the southern U.S. And each time I do, I cringe inside. I cringe for the same reason that I cringed when, at a workshop on entrepreneurial ministry recently, it was quickly pointed out that in Unitarian Universalist ministry, we invest more innovation dollars and think of entrepreneurial ministers almost exclusively in terms of young, white, charismatic men (even with a sketchy return on investment). Why do we continue to perpetuate the myth that an entrepreneur is a young, white guy?

Some facts. In 2014, Harvard Business School reported that women are starting new businesses twice as fast as men. (1) In 2015, the Atlantic reported that “About 29 percent of America’s business owners are women, that’s up from 26 percent in 1997.”(2) Just two years later, in 2017, CNBC reported that women now make up 40 percent of new entrepreneurs in the United States – so the trend is growing, quickly. Out of the 25 promising young startups on CNBC’s 2017 UpStart List, 10 were organizations started by women in fields from from neuroscience to finance to retail. (3)

And lest you think this phenomena is the realm of white women – “The progress for minority women has been particularly swift, with business ownership skyrocketing by 265 percent since 1997…and minorities now make up one in three female-owned businesses, up from only one in six less than two decades ago.”(4)

As if this were not enough on its own, consider the Forbes report which shared that “women were more likely than men to introduce products and services that are new to customers and not generally offered by competitors (40 percent compared to 35 percent).” (5)

So really, if you want to advertise your business program, you would be better off with something like one of the advertisements below.

 

 

 

 

 

(1) https://hbr.org/2014/06/more-women-starting-businesses-isnt-necessarily-good-news
(2) https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/04/women-are-owning-more-and-more-small-businesses/390642/
(3) https://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/28/the-inaugural-cnbc-upstart-25-promising-young-start-ups.html
(4) https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/04/women-are-owning-more-and-more-small-businesses/390642/
(5) https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanprice/2017/11/15/as-entrepreneurship-thrives-women-are-starting-more-innovative-businesses-than-men/#644f56483da5

faith on a plane, part 2.

26 Jan

As I passed through security, something unique happened. An older man looked at me, smiled, and asked what denomination I was with. For a year now, I’ve made a practice of wearing my clerical collar when I fly. I haven’t worn it every time – but probably about 90% of the time I do. I would guess I’ve been on around 50 airplanes in that time, so we are talking about a substantial number of flights. My uniform is pretty standard: collared shirt, sweater, jeans, and, of course, the pins that I wear every day (Black Lives Matter, rainbow flag, world religious symbols and a safety pin). After all this travel, this man was the first to comment on my collar and ask my affiliation.

Instead of asking me about it, I’ve found that most of the people who catch the collar quickly look away as if they don’t want to be caught staring. Whether it is staring at a clergy member in general, or at a female clergy member in particular, I don’t know. Interestingly enough, I’ve also found that seatmates talk to me less when I am wearing a collar than they do when I am in regular clothing. I don’t know if they don’t know what to make of me, or are intimidated – but my collar provides a strange boundary that allows me more personal space since for decades I seem to have had a neon sign above my head that says “Tell Me Your Problems!”

I began wearing the collar when I fly after reading story after story about unruly, rude, oppressive behavior on planes. I was hoping that people would be on their best behavior around a clergy person. Or that I would be a calming presence. I’m not sure my presence has stymied any potential fights, but I do know that the woman who I was seated next to on one flight, who was very angry with the couple in front of us, felt she had to tone her vitriol down since she was seated next to me. So maybe that is something.

Here is what I think is going on: people still don’t know what to do with a female cleric. It makes them confused from the get-go. And if they happen to look at me long enough to see the pins, they get knocked off-balance. I should make it explicit: I don’t get any negative comments about the pins. Maybe I would if it were just a rainbow flag pin, or just a Black Lives Matter pin. But the combination of the pins makes is quite clear that I am in support of those who are oppressed and marginalized in our society. Unfortunately, this is often in direct opposition to the image the clerical collar presents. Generally, I think the intersectionality of a woman in a collar wearing these pins makes most people especially confused. When I have a chance to interact with someone for more than a couple of seconds, if that person is a person of color, they almost always comment on how awesome my pins are. The only white person who ever said anything presented as gender non-conforming.

Meanwhile, I don’t believe I’ve gotten any special treatment while wearing my collar. Due to my obliviousness of things that happen behind my back, I have no idea what sort of snickers or other comments might follow in my wake. I suspect it changes my own behavior more than anything else – I find I smile much more at people, and am unerringly polite – this behavior doesn’t feel like a burden, though. Instead, it feels more like a way to gently bless the world with my care and consideration.

It seems a small thing, this little piece of plastic tucked into my shirt, but it makes me a walking, breathing testament to what should be impossible in many people’s minds, and it makes me move in the world with just a tad more grace. I’ll continue to wear my uniform when I fly.

If you are a clergy member who wears their collar when you fly, what are your observations?

leaving Indivisible Kentucky.

21 Sep

It is with deep sadness that I announce that I am severing my ties with Indivisible Kentucky.

Like many of you, I was distressed at the outcome of the November election. It was clear to me that I had to act, particularly since I live in the home state of Mitch McConnell. When I read the Indivisible Guide in mid-December, I thought I had found a format that might work and began contacting the connections I had made in the social justice community. What appealed to me, in particular, was the section on Diversity and Advocacy:

As you conduct outreach and expand, keep in mind that we’re all stronger if we represent a diverse set of voices and perspectives, and especially when we center the voices of those who are most affected by Trump’s agenda. So please make a conscious effort to reach out to a diverse group of people as you build out your group. Women, members of immigrant, Muslim, African American, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities, as well as people of different incomes and education levels, health and disability statuses, and ages, are some examples of those whose engagement and leadership are especially valuable and needed in this work. This can also be particularly meaningful for those of us who identify across these categories. Resistance needs solidarity to succeed.

My vision was to use the guide to create an intentionally multi-racial, multi-cultural, truly diverse organization in Louisville that would unite people to hold Mitch McConnell (in particular) accountable to all the people.

Along the way, we did a lot of good work. We were first on the scene with regular rallies outside Mitch McConnell’s office. We worked with others in the community to pull together a rally when VP Pence came to town, and then turned around and did it again with Trump did two weeks later. We had Rep. Yarmuth attend a packed meeting. Over 3000 follow the organization on social media.

Unfortunately, however, my vision was not to be. With primarily white, middle-class, middle-aged people in leadership, the people of color who joined us were marginalized and tokenized. We did not center their voices or experiences. Time and again we proved ourselves to be the white moderate progressives who tone-police by telling those who are marginalized to not be so angry, or to just wait, or to follow our tactics. We were patronizing. We did not have enough voices at the table to help us make good decisions in what messaging to use. In short, we were bad allies.

Though we tried to educate ourselves and our followers – through getting online training and having a leadership retreat that focused on ways that we unintentionally participate in and reinforce oppressions like white supremacy and misogyny – it was not sufficient. Perhaps it was because the message of Indivisible appeals primarily to new, white activists who are not fluent in the languages of oppression and intersectionality. Perhaps it was because we were all volunteers and did not have the time or energy to make the needed course corrections. Certainly, it was in part because the crises from the Republican administration kept coming, which kept pushing our education pieces to the back burner as we felt we needed to respond to one crisis, then another, and another, in a never-ending flow of disgusting material coming from Washington. It is difficult, if not impossible, to build a bicycle while also riding it.

Regardless of the reasons, it has become clear to me that I have been unable to lead Indivisible Kentucky, the organization which I co-founded, into the organization I envisioned. Though I am deeply grateful for all those who have dedicated their time and energy towards the ideals of the organization, I regret that it has divided, rather than united and find I can no longer be a part of it.

Kentucky’s pension crisis.

1 Aug

I don’t normally share the papers I write for my graduate studies on this blog, but I think this one is pretty important – particularly for those of us who live in Kentucky.  I wrote this paper as my final for my Public Finance class. Here is the introduction, or click here to download the entire pdf.

A government makes promises to the public and to its employees, but what happens if the government finds itself unable to keep those promises? A private company can go bankrupt, but as of today, states are not allowed to do that.[1] So what options does a state have when they become financially unsustainable? Government intervention in the private market is often needed when there is a market failure. What happens when the government upsets, rather than stabilizes, the economy?

These are the issues facing the Commonwealth of Kentucky right now. The state’s pension system suffers from years of chronic underfunding[2] and they now find themselves billions of dollars shy of what will be needed in the near future. The working number for how much the state owes its pension system has been $37 billion.[3] However, a Moody’s report issued on July 21, 2017 doubled that number to $70 billion in unfunded pension liabilities[4]. To put that in context, the amount the state of Kentucky owes its worker’s pension funds is more than seven times the Commonwealth’s entire $10 billion annual General Fund budget.[5]

Who is this money owed to? More than 8% of the Commonwealth’s population: over 360,000 Kentuckians,[6] including firefighters, police, teachers, city, state employees, transportation employees, social workers, mental health workers, university employees,[7] are counting on these benefits for their future financial security.

Figure 1 [10]

A new study shows that Kentucky’s pension system is one of the most poorly funded in the nation and the Commonwealth is doing the worst at paying off its pension debt.[8] Based on plan information reported through the end of fiscal 2015, the median funded ratio across state plans was 74.6%, but for Kentucky, the funded ratio was only 37.4% (based on earlier S&P numbers), as shown in Figure 1. [9]

Because of the magnitude of the debt and the size of the Commonwealth’s budget, this trend will be difficult to change. But without drastic change, the state will continue to fall behind faster than any other state.[11]

So how did this financial disaster come about? Was it preventable? What are the steps the Commonwealth might take to address it? As Governor Matt Bevin considers calling a special legislative session[12] to address this crisis (and a recently discovered budget deficit from 2016-2017 fiscal year)[13] these are some questions citizens of the Commonwealth might be asking and that are addressed in the following sections of this paper. There have been many books and articles about this issue, this paper hopes to present an easily digestible overview of the various issues and potential paths out of financial collapse that the Commonwealth might take to right its course. Let’s begin with a more in-depth overview of the history: How did Kentucky get into this mess?

To read the whole paper, download it here.

 

[1] John Mauldin, “Don’t Be So Sure That States Can’t Go Bankrupt,” Forbes, Jul 28, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmauldin/2016/07/28/dont-be-so-sure-that-states-cant-go-bankrupt/#accda622f2d4, (accessed July 27, 2017).

[2] Ben Walsh and Travis Waldron, “Kentucky’s Hedge Funder Governor Keeps State Money In Secretive Hedge Funds,” HuffPost, June 24, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/matt-bevin-kentucky-pensions_us_594bf56ce4b0a3a837be3d56, (accessed July 27, 2017).

[3] Tom Loftus, “Pension costs just jumped for Kentucky’s school districts, local governments,” Courier-Journal, July 12, 2017, http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2017/07/12/pension-costs-just-jumped-kentuckys-school-districts-local-governments/467408001/, (accessed July 27, 2017).

[4] Moody’s Investors Service, “Kentucky (Commonwealth of) Update – Moody’s downgrades Kentucky to Aa3; outlook stable,” (July 20, 2017): 5.

[5] William M. Landrum III, Edgar C. Ross and Donald Sweasy, “Commonwealth of Kentucky Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 2015,” 141, http://finance.ky.gov/Office%20of%20the%20Controller/2015CAFR.pdf (accessed July 27, 2017).

[6] “Kentucky’s Pension Crisis – Frequently Asked Questions,” (March 2016): 1, https://kypensioncrisisdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/pension-faq.pdf, (accessed July 27, 2017).

[7] Tom Loftus, “Don’t cut our pensions amid crisis, public workers tell Kentucky board,” Courier-Journal, June 26, 2017, http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2017/06/26/stakeholders-give-their-views-pension-reforms/421347001/, (accessed July 27, 2017).

[8] Ryland Barton, “Kentucky’s Pensions Are Worst-Funded In U.S., Study Shows,” WFPL, September 15, 2016, http://wfpl.org/studies-show-kentuckys-state-pensions-worst-in-nation/, (accessed July 27, 2017).

[9] Sussan S. Corson, “U.S. State Pensions: Weak Market Returns Will Contribute To Rise In Expense,” Standards and Poor, (September 12, 2016): 7, http://www.nasra.org/files/Topical%20Reports/Credit%20Effects/SPGlobalstates1609.pdf, (accessed July 27, 2017).

[10] ibid.

[11] Barton, “Kentucky’s Pensions Are Worst-Funded In U.S., Study Shows.”

[12] A special session would cost more than $63,000 a day, according to the Legislative Research Commission.

[13] Tom Loftus, “Can public pension benefits be cut? Kentucky officials looking into it,” Courier-Journal, July 14, 2017, http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2017/07/14/can-public-pension-benefits-cut-kentucky-officials-looking-into/434944001/, (accessed on July 27, 2017).

faith on a plane.

25 May

Talking with a colleague recently, he asked about the increased travel I am doing as a Congregational Life Consultant for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I told him I enjoyed it, and that I had worked out most of the details – what processes work for me, what hotel chains I like, when to fly. At that last point, we talked about how difficult it can be to fly as clergy – as soon as our seatmates ask what we do for a living, it opens all sorts of doors for conversations we may, or may not, want to have.

When I told him that, for the past 9 months, I have been wearing my clerical collar whenever I fly, his face took on a shocked expression. “Why on earth would you do that?” he asked me.

I shared with him that I was bothered by the increasing violence that is occurring on planes, and that I wanted to be prepared to be a force for good if something happened in my presence. I know that people respond differently to me when I wear a collar. If I were to witness something violent on a plane, in a collar I could stand up and be a witness in ways that are more powerful than I could as a mid-40 year old woman. Especially if I then started singing or praying.

I also want people to know that I am a safe person – that I am willing and able to try to de-escalate a situation, or be a good ally if that is needed. So in addition to my collar, I also wear my Black Lives Matter/Pride Flag/World Religions safety-pin (which I wear every day).

I completely understand why some of my clergy colleagues prefer to travel anonymously. But for me, this public witness is a part of my spiritual practice when I travel. It is a away to claim my religious authority and put my faith in action and declare that I am on the side of the marginalized. As a white minister, I have so much privilege. This feels like a good way to use it. I hope I am never needed in such a way when I travel, but if something does happen, I am ready.

Beyond the Balcony and the Dance Floor

10 May

Originally shared in the Southern Region blog, but I like it so I am sharing it here, too.

It’s been quite a while since I last joined a mosh pit. No, I am not speaking metaphorically (yet). For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a mosh pit is an area, usually near the stage at a live concert, where people engage in some pretty full-contact dancing – bodies slamming into each other, usually to loud, energetic music. I loved being in the pit when I was younger, but as I was nearing my 30s moshing evolved into people throwing elbows at the faces of other dancers and I decided that I had had enough.

When my spouse recently got us tickets to one of his favorite punk bands from the 70s and 80s, we decided, rather than getting general admission tickets which would put us down on the floor, we wanted to be up on the balcony with secured seats in case we needed to give ourselves a break. It was worth the extra expenditure, but not because of the seats. Instead, I found that I spent nearly as much time watching the dancers on the floor as I did watching the band (who were amazing). And I saw something I’d never noticed before.

There was a group of young adults, slamming away. Old school – no elbows, just running into each other, bumping shoulders. Full-contact but not violent. As I continued to watch, I noticed that there were a few big, older guys around the edge of where the pit had formed. They stood in front of people who didn’t want to be slammed into, protecting them from the dancers and simultaneously allowing the dancers to lose themselves into the abandon of the dance. These guys would also push the dancers back into the pit if they strayed too far, picking them up if they fell down – occasionally even getting the dancers going in a circle pit.

I’d never noticed this role when I had been in the pit in my younger days. I’m not sure if they existed, or if that is a role that has developed over the years as moshing and the pit have evolved. It almost made me wish I was down on the dance floor – these “conductors”, as it were, made the dance floor a safe space not only for the concert-goers who didn’t wish to be bumped into, but for the young people in the pit as well.

So now let’s expand this into metaphor. Business and leadership guru Ronald Heifetz often refers to the concept of “getting on the balcony” when he talks about leadership. He talks about how our view and experience of something is different depending on whether we are on the dance floor, or if we are able to get up on the balcony. From the dance floor, there is just the music and the dancers, but from the balcony we can see all sorts of patterns. In Leadership On the Line, he writes “The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray [by getting up on the balcony]…[but] if you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.” The magic spot is the place of balance, going back and forth between the two, using our experiences on one to shape the other.

In leadership development, we often encourage those in leadership to “get up on the balcony” – particularly when there is a situation that is fraught with conflict. Remove yourself from reactivity, from the heat of the moment, and get up to the balcony and watch the patterns, the process. Then you can go back down to the dance floor with greater clarity about a situation.

But after my experience at the concert, I’m going to add a new role when I talk about the balcony and the dance floor -“Floor Conductor” – for those times when we are on the dance floor and see that space needs to be made, both for people who need to dance a bit more exuberantly than others, and for those who just want to enjoy the music. Floor conductors can help ensure that all participants are able to dance and participate the way they want, and need to, safely.

So get up on the balcony when you want a view of the big picture and the patterns that you can’t see from the floor. Go to the dance floor when you want to impact a situation beyond making observations about it. And be a floor conductor when you want to help create a safe place where all can dance however they choose.

safety, comfort, law and order.

22 Apr

As conversations around racial justice and white supremacy (both covert and overt) dominate our culture and my faith tradition, I have found myself thinking about the difference between safety and comfort.

In the past few months, I have been approached by numerous white people who want to share with me their discomfort over something a black or brown person has shared, usually (but not only) on the topic of police violence. “Is this a safe place for ME?” the white people are usually asking, even if there are only a few people of color in the room.

When white people do this, we put our own comfort ahead of the safety of people of color.

A while ago, Reading While White had a great blog post about this:

let’s stop worrying so much about creating comfortable spaces and worry more about whether our spaces are truly safe for all….creating a space that is truly safe for people of color and First/Native Nations people often necessitates making that space uncomfortable for White people.

Read the whole post. It’s a quick, powerful read.

What I really want to share with you today, however, is a connection to safety and comfort that I made while reading Chris Hayes’ new book A Colony in a Nation. Hayes uses his experience in Ferguson to discuss the concept of the second part of the phrase “Law and Order.” In Ferguson, Hayes experienced no law breaking, but the people in the street, backing up traffic, making a lot of noise, created a lot of disorder. Disorder that white people found uncomfortable. Worthy of having a police presence. Even though there was nothing unlawful happening where he was.

Hayes writes that over the 50 years since Nixon referred to black Americans as “a colony in a nation,” we have built just that. We have created “a territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than within. A place where the mechanisms of representation don’t work enough to give citizens a sense of ownership over their own government. A place where law is a tool of control rather than than a foundation for prosperity. A political regime like the one our Founders inherited and rejected. An order they spilled their blood to defeat.

He says that in the Nation, which is made up of white people, “there is law; in the Colony there is only a concern with order. In the Nation you have rights; in the Colony you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty.”

Law and order are not the same thing.

Safety and comfort are not the same thing.

May our desire for order not outweigh our need for justice for people of color.

May our desire for comfort not outweigh the need for safety for people of color.

As we confront systems of oppression, I encourage those of us who are white to step into the discomfort, step into the disorderliness. Because it is there that we will begin to make progress.

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