The End of Brown v. Board

June 28, 2007

This is so absurd and awful I can’t think of anything to say right now.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/28/us/28cnd-scotus.html?hp

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UU Theological Schools – Why are they important?

June 26, 2007

I saw over at the UU World that cuts in funds to UU theological schools have been approved by the Board of Trustees.  The article at UU World notes that in a June email to the school’s supporters Rev. Rebecca Park “urged supporters to contact UUA trustees, emphasizing ‘that support for our Unitarian Universalist Schools is critical to the future of the movement.'”

I know very little about Medville Lombard and Starr King. I would be interested to hear from those out there more familiar with the situation if and why (or why not) you think that “support for our Unitarian Universalist Schools is critical to the future of our movement.”

Thanks.  Elizabeth


What does it take for mentoring “at risk” kids to “work”?

June 25, 2007

So I have “mentored” three young men for the past twelve years. They rank in the top five joys and blessings of my life. I love them so much and think they are just so amazing beyond words. That said, it has been hard. Very very hard. For them. For me. These are my thoughts on that process and on the “afterschool tutoring”/”mentoring disadvantaged kids” trend that is quite popular these days. This is a tad long, but I think worth it, as it is one of the areas I am most passionate about and actually know a little about.

First a note on terminology: I put “at risk” and “work” in quotes because I’m not sure if either of those are the greatest terms to describe what I am talking about, but I can’t think of others that work better. I think we label inner-city and/or minority kids “at risk” and it turns them into Those At Risk Kids rather than just people trying to make their way in the world. That said, kids whose families are poor, kids who grow up in the inner-city, and/or kids who are part of a minority ethnicity/race, face a whole host of factors that stack the cards against them, and it is important to acknowledge that they are up against a lot that has really nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with the way our society is structured. I say “what does it take to make mentoring “work”?” because the whole idea of what is a “success” that has really “worked” makes it seem like mentoring is meant to churn our “good” members of society. This is a problem. I wanted the boys I mentored to be happy, safe, and feel loved, like most people want for people/children who they care about. Part of this is the hope that their criminal record would be non-existent or minor, that they wouldn’t have children earlier than they were ready, that they wouldn’t be involved in drug sales (one of the only lucrative jobs available to them with the sort of sucky inner-city education they got), that they could have a job that make them happy and feel secure, that they would find a partner they loved, etc. This is different than the grappling, desperate hope of preventing “those kids” from becoming criminals, which is the underlying message/goal of lots of inner-city mentoring/after school programs.

So, enough with terminology. I think you get the point.

The main thing I wanted to raise in this post is that afterschool tutoring programs and mentoring programs mostly serve the purpose of exposing privileged teenagers to social injustices. The best result of this is that they are more aware of these social injustices and aware that they are structural issues (and not because poor/minority folks are lazy or bad parents, etc.). This is actually important because I can’t think of any other way to get privileged people to understand their privilege, and to understand social injustice other than getting to know people different from them. Volunteer programs help with this and the good ones help volunteers reflect on this, and integrate it into their world view. The idea would be to produce volunteers who will be moved enough by their experiences to want to change the world.

What these programs usually don’t do is actually help the kids have any more stability in their lives, get better grades or be less “at risk.” I know that there are exceptions, but by and large, these programs do not actually help the kids. The best programs realize this, and instead do the programs with the knowledge that it is mostly about volunteers learning from communities, with a sometimes side-benefit of actually supporting those communities in the struggle for the justice that they deserve.

The programs mostly don’t work because, first, the schools that poor and minority kids go to are so bad that a little tutoring here and there by high school students cannot even begin to compensate for the inadequate education that kids from inner-city schools get. (How do I know this? The book Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol deals with this extensively, and I did the research for the book so I’ve poured over these stats and narrative accounts, and studies, um, a lot.)

Another reason they don’t work is because, there is a lot of talk about “loving the kids” and “building relationships” in these programs, but this doesn’t work if you volunteer for one semester, or even a year or two. As cute as the kids may be, “loving them” involves more than showing up once a week to tutor them. And they know it. Many kids from the inner-city have seen hundreds of people come and go, bearing gifts of bicycles, candy, fun games, parties, tutoring books (and often the message of Jesus). They are onto the game. They live it up. Play along. Hug you and smile, but they know that when it gets hard, the tutoring people aren’t around. Not when Dad goes to jail. Not when Mom looses her job, when the phone gets cut off, when the shots ring out.

Someone said something like this to me early in my conversion to Christianity when I was still trying hard to do everything everyone at my church told me to. They said, “Lots of people come and go in these kids lives. You need to be there for them.” So, when I got my first group of tutoring kids I decided, “Okay, these are my kids.” This is not to say, “Oh what a hero I am” but to say that mentoring can’t work unless it is for the long haul. Late night calls. Money transfers. Going out to Chucky Cheese even when you are so tired and just want to rest. Answering the hard questions and confused tears about why we are always stopped by the police – black kids with a white girl. Explaining to the people at ice cream store that we will not leave and you can’t just ban people from your store just because. Knowing when to be the tough big sister or when to just listen. Not having any idea what you are doing and needing to just keep going anyway. And explaining for the five millionth time why you cannot call each other gay even if you “don’t mean anything” by it.

Is mentoring some sort of answer? I would say absolutely not. It is great if you can do it. If you stick with it, love unconditionally, are willing to help financially, emotionally, even on those days when you are tired, and even when the mentorees make the ten thousandth bad decision (as most kids will do), it can “work.” It is the most rewarding thing in my life – the young men bring me more joy than I can put into words. I LOVE to laugh with them, and I am not a huge laugh-er. I think my presence and never-ending-even-when-it-seems-stupid belief in them has made a difference. But they still struggle SO MUCH because being poor in the United States is hard. Being black is hard. It’s like no matter how hard they try, there is often something else that just knocks them down. And there is only so much I can do, they can do, their moms can do. And my love and commitment to them hasn’t done much or even almost anything to change the system. And it has taken a whole lotta energy. I do it because I love them and they love me, but it is so so so frustrating to see that EVERY OTHER KID they know and I know from the tutoring program where I met them is not doing well. Pregnant very young. Shot. Jail. Abused. No decent educations. We sometimes go over the kids that we all knew, and we can’t come up with anyone doing well. It is depressing.

I don’t mean this to be some sort of authoritative article on mentoring or that I am some sort of guru. It is just that I don’t hear a lot of people sticking with the mentoring thing through elementary school all the way to college. It makes me upset to see mentoring programs that are all self-congratulatory and then don’t even have a long-term way to maintain contact with the kids. That is FINE if you don’t want to be in it for the long-haul, but if you want to make a difference, the long-haul is what it will take. I guess I am looking for more honesty about what these sorts of mentoring/tutoring programs can and can’t do for communities and their children. And honesty about what it really takes to make a dent in the numbing barrage of injustices that far too many children face every single day.

May we continue to do the hard work of love and justice wherever and however we can.

2000

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2007

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Overheard at the coffee shop

June 24, 2007

A group of people were sitting next to me today talking about the webpage business they all seem to work with. I heard this said very casually (as if it was so obvious) and thought it was funny, yet not so funny.

I’ve been working with a church for the past year, so, I am dealing with some very ugly ugly nasty politics.

I did not put two uglies in there. That was what they said.


Doing the Hard Work of Love and Justice: Where is energy best spent?

June 24, 2007

I wrote meditations and prayers for my internship congregation each week when I was the intern minister there.  One theme that came up over and over, for me, was to remind us what was involved and pray for what we needed to “do the hard work of love and justice.” The idea that it is important for us to remember that if we are going to talk about love and justice, as most UUs like to do, it is important to remember that it is about hard work and not just righteous talk or token actions. As I think about what it means to do this in my own life, I often wonder where my energy is best spent to bring about the most good. I know for me, it is often easy to convince myself that what I want to do, or what appeals to me the most, is the best use of my time, especially if what is appealing can seem righteous or really worthy.

All the hub-a-bub about General Assembly, and the not too distant brown bag controversy as had me thinking about what it means to be part of a faith, part of an association, and just what I want my life to look like and where I want to put my attention – how to live out my own call to do the hard work of love and justice.

I think it would be really easy for me to get involved in UUA politics (by this I mean both the important, good work of our Association, and also the somewhat jaded, gossipy politics). I could very easily be a snarky blogger making fun of all the unique and maybe less than common-sense seeming things that happen at GA and in UUism in general. In fact, I do this in my head more than I want, but I try to stop myself.  I think I could have written a scathing post on the whole brown bag thing. But I’m trying not to do this, and put my frustration, anger, and energy into those parts of my life and my faith that seem like they will make the biggest difference.* The question of course is what the best allocation of my time and energy is.
Not that General Assembly or language issues (how we talk about things, for instance, lunches where people need to bring their own lunch) aren’t important, but I am feeling more and more like there are a lot symbolic politics that I could really make a lot out of and that would be sort of fun and feel really important, but I’m not sure if that is where my time and energy should be spent.  And of course, there is the important question of being able to discern symbolic politics from actual important stuff that makes a difference in people’s lives (and makes a difference big enough to be justified, relative to the time and energy spent on it, since time and energy, institutionally and individually, is limited).

All that said, it also seems like one needs to keep one foot in institutional worlds, and bigger questions. I can be a bit leery of the potential for political correctness to run amok. But, then again, some people might tell me that using only male language for God is one of those areas, and what is all the fuss about? And of course, I would argue that it is an important area to be attentive to. Maybe all that happens at UUA headquarters in Boston is not earth-shattering, but certainly some things that happen there and some of what happens at our General Assembly is really important.  The question is how to manage my energy and time – how much can I/should I/must I give to these things that are sort of scarily appealing to jump into, yet at the same time, softly whisper to me that this is not where my energy should go? I think it is so easy to criticize what is not going right or well. It is so much harder to do something different that wouldn’t be make-fun-of-worthy.

Just some reflections on this. No conclusions yet.

*When I talk about making the biggest difference, I don’t mean to imply that UUism is some sort of big social service agency or something that is meant to change the world via our Social Action Committees. For me, I feel like my connection with the divine is, in many ways, through bringing about the kingdom of love/god here on earth. I feel a call to unconditional love, which in some way, I feel emanates from the divine to the world’s beings. This is not meant to be Elizabeth’s Spiritual Treatise on Divine love, but just to clarify that unconditional love is a guiding force in my spiritual journey, which, for me, translates to reducing the suffering of others in both spiritual and material ways, thus the whole thing about “hard work of love and justice.”

**Side note II: This is not to be some sort of broad criticism of snarky criticism or critique of things in general. I think sometimes it is good and needed and constructive. Sometimes it can just be too much, too frequent, and mean. This is mostly about my approach to things.


Meet Jesus: My running list of things that would somewhat traumatize lots of people I know

June 14, 2007

I just got a huge kick out of what is probably a great book. It is called Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher and it is on the front page of the UUA bookstore website. It is so something I would get for my kids (if I had them) but I just envisioned some of my dear and beloved more traditional Christian friends and relatives and how dreadfully horrible this book would seem to them – you might as well give your kid a book called “How to Be Evil.” This goes in the same category with the tradition at my home UU church where everyone is invited to dress in costume the Sunday closest to Halloween and sing a song called “The Witch Song” with the following chorus:

Who were the witches, where did they come from?
Maybe your great great grandmother was one.
Witches were wise, wise women they say,
And there’s a little witch in every woman today.
There’s a little witch in every woman today.

Perhaps you have to come from a Baptist charismatic background to appreciate the absolute horror that these two very nice UU innovations would invoke. Why makes me laugh, I don’t know. It just does. It would so not be funny if these ideas were even ever mentioned anywhere some of my nearest and dearest. Or in my hometown. So not funny.
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Article on People With More Than One Partner in Salon.com

June 14, 2007

I know a lot of people freak out about Unitarian Universalists that support/advocate/are okay with relationships that are non-monogamous (often called polyamorists, although I guess I tend to avoid that term since it sounds identity-ish – it isn’t like people in monogamous relationships go around calling themselves monogamists… but I digress). Anyway, I tend to think that all the freaking out or abhorrence or whatever of people who aren’t gung-ho about monogamy is a bit dramatic and not that fair. I’ve been meaning to write a post on marriage/the modern (or post-modern) relationship for a while, so perhaps this is a precursor.

All of this just to point out an article in Salon.com www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2007/06/14/polyamory/index.html that does (I think) a decent job of de-dramatizing people with multiple romantic partners in their life (or who are open to such constellations). I also read a good article in Tikkun about it a while back www.tikkun.org/magazine/tik0701/frontpage/monogamy. Just so no one overreacts, I am not advocating or coming out with an opinion on this – rather, I guess I just feel like relationships, love, traditional marriage, jealousy, monogamy are things that need to be reflected on and assessed. I feel like the whole get married to one partner and stick with that your whole life and be 100% monogamous just isn’t working on a big scale, as evidenced by adultery and divorce rates. I’m not saying non-monogamy is the answer, but rather that we need to consider the current accepted “right” way to do things. These are two reflection pieces around this idea. (I also reviewed a good book on marriage here a while back, which is also part of this overall conversation.)

Also, a note on the blog. I am realizing that I don’t have as much to say as I thought I would. I considered retiring from Elizabeth’s Little Blog, but every once in a while, I DO have something that seems blog worthy. So perhaps that is being downgraded to an occasional blog. It has been that way for a while now, but I suppose I have yet to acknowledge it – always thinking I would get around to posting more often.