Thursday, May 16, 2019

Wisdom: Andre Henry & Frederick Douglass


At The Table Setters, we lean into the wisdom of writers who've gone before us like Frederick Douglass, and writers and theologians who are still with us, like Andre Henry and Nick Barrett.

This discussion needs to be happening daily, and we need to be having these kinds of talks both within, and outside of, the bubbles we've come to know.


If you live in Detroit, join us this weekend at Fort Street Presbyterian Church where we discuss:

Friday, March 29, 2019

Dismantling My Whiteousness, Live


Thanks to a generous partnership between New Detroit and The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, I got to partake in a project to understand race as a social construct.  Everyone received a free DNA kit to study both our ancestry and genealogy, to make connections to our shared histories and the authentic stories of where we come from, and where they intersect.   My journey includes failing miserably as a "white savior" (thankfully!), and finding hidden white ancestors who were more violent than the people of Detroit I was taught to fear.  Oh, and Solange Knowles is my 10th cousin....so there's that.

Performed live at The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI, March 27, 2019

(video credit: dad.  :))

Monday, January 21, 2019

Inseparable from The Dream is The Letter

Transcript of Opening Reflections delivered at The Community House of Birmingham, Michigan at the 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration entitled: THE DREAM: HOW DO WE LIVE IT? HOW CAN WE WORK TOGETHER TO MOVE FORWARD?
***
Good morning friends, family, and neighbors.  My name is Matthew Schmitt, and I am humbled and grateful to be asked to open our time together on such an important day.  I grew up just a mile from here, graduated from Groves High School, and currently live in Pingree Park on Detroit’s Eastside where Darcie and I are raising our two daughters within the context of a beautifully complex and resilient community.
When I consider the context of our gathering today, the Dream, how do we live it, how can we work together to move forward, I find myself wondering if part of the challenge is to consistently practice waking ourselves up to more than Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  Many of you may have portions of it memorized, the epic and soaring call to action that, you may recall, he actually practiced first here in downtown Detroit about two months before the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  You will undoubtedly hear excerpts of it throughout the day on the radio, the news, (even in wildly inappropriate and shameful ways yesterday) and that’s because it is indeed brilliant and inspiring.  But I think, sometimes, what makes these ideas so hard to live out, is that we actually get stuck in the dream, a cloudy and hazy space that is not fully in touch with reality because it’s only part of the story.
Let’s face it, Dr. Martin Luther King was not shot to death over articulating a dream.  He was boldly speaking truth to power. Calling out individuals who created and supported policies and the systems of our society that heavily favored people who look like me over people who looked like Dr. King.  And those bravely organized efforts were succeeding in bringing this truth to the light of day, ensuring that the reality of the injustice was made clear and unavoidable through boycotts and demonstrations that exerted economic pressures on those who were all too comfortable with the status quo.  This was waking the rest of the world up to the injustices suffered too long by black people.
Now, as important as it’s ever been: we must ask how far have we actually come?  Another way to ask: Have we dismantled the systems that promote some people as inherently more valuable than others?   Or do we still tend to prefer the absence of tension, which King calls a “negative peace,” instead of the presence of justice, which he describes as the only real peace.
During some of my coursework at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, we looked at Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail in the context of studying prophetic texts.  Now, of course, I need to make it clear here, that we’re talking about Birmingham, Alabama. Anyway, our professor taught that prophetic writings were not exactly predictions of what would happen in the future. Rather, the prophets in ancient sacred texts were often marginalized people who believed firmly in the mandates and promises of the scriptures, and were unafraid to share their oftentimes harsh warnings with the broader society.  In this light, Dr. King's writings from inside a cell certainly marched in step with this rich and controversial history.  The letter was a response to a statement issued by eight white religious leaders who had publicly criticized Dr. King for engaging in the “illegal” activity of demonstrating against segregation.  
In looking over Dr. King’s words again to prepare for this morning, I was struck nearly breathless at how much it felt like this letter could’ve been written only yesterday.  
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.  History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
What might Dr. King have to say about today’s rhetoric labeling economic refugees and asylum seekers as dangerous criminals seeking to harm and destroy American citizens, when the vast majority that I’ve met in Aqua Prieta and Nogales along Arizona’s border are farmers and families with children.  They’ve asked me why Americans are so afraid of them.
King lamented, “I wish you had commended the demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer, and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhumane provocation” and I wonder how might he have celebrated the bravery of the 12 year-olds a few years ago in Ferguson who gathered peacefully to promote more equity in how communities are policed, even amidst being tear-gassed. Have we adequately celebrated these young people?
When he wrote: Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.  And that the word “wait” has almost always meant “never.” I find myself wondering how I might apply this wisdom in conversations with Detroit neighbors who are still waiting for the loan to fix their roof, and waiting for car insurance to be less expensive than 2 mortgages.
Dr. King writes about being gravely disappointed with white moderates who are more devoted to order than justice.
This echoed with my years spent as a non-profit ministry director in Los Angeles, hosting groups on mission trips from all around the country, coming to assist with relief efforts for the nation’s largest homeless population.  Early in my time as director, when we focused on compassion, the mission trip participants (who were mostly middle to upper class white, our European descended groups), felt good about themselves, good about having done something to alleviate their tension with having more than others.  But when we started making correlations to systemic realities that dug into what might be needed to truly bring racial and socio-economic justice, they often pushed back: why are you talking about race? Why are you talking about injustice? We were just here to serve and volunteer?  We didn’t cause any of these people’s problems!  
I, too, found myself very disappointed with the pious self-righteousness of these groups, or what I started referring to as “Whiteousness” after an activist friend shared the word with me.  I mean, what good was service if you were only doing it to feel good about yourself but were not willing to pay closer attention to the societal circumstances that helped to create these situations, and how you might unintentionally be supporting that very system?  It’s actually what led Marvin Wadlow and I to launch The Table Setters, a non-profit dedicated to creating face-to-face discussions around these kinds of issues, and thankfully, enough of those mission trip leaders recognized the need to dig deeper within their churches and schools to help us get started.  But we certainly have a long way to go.  I, too, certainly have a long way to go in dismantling my own tendencies and biases.
How do we live into the dream of a diverse sisterhood, a vibrant brotherhood, a people recognizing their shared humanity?  Again, I turn back to Dr. King’s letter, where he provides touchstones in the work towards true peace and justice: after deeply listening to people when they express their pain and recognizing that injustice is truly alive, (and I would add making it our default to TRUST those lived experiences), after recognizing that attempts at negotiation are impossibly incomplete when there is not equal representation of power at the table, when the people who are most impacted by the decision about to be made are not allowed to have a say in what’s about to happen, after all this work has been done, we must also recognize that non-violent direct action is a critical next step.  He writes, “Non-violent direct action seeks to establish a creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  
Friends: where can we build upon this creative tension today?  What issues need to be confronted?  Where do we know injustice exists, and are we willing to at least risk our reputations to point it out?  Or better put, as the Reverend Denise Anderson, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church of the USA, charged the Presbytery of Detroit yesterday after reminding us that Rosa Parks craved justice so much she put her livelihood on the line, "What do you crave so much that you are willing to risk your comfort, your privilege, your esteem, your very lives for it to come to fruition?" How can people like myself, who have never had to endure losing a family member to an act of racial or religious hatred in our lifetimes, step into this tension as trusted allies?  Not as a savior, not as merely a supporter, but as a person who deeply believes that any act of injustice on any one person is a threat to justice everywhere?  
Because, in this letter from a jail cell, Dr. King teaches that “in a real sense all life is inter-related. [We] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  
During one large church group that Marvin and I got to work with from Littleton, Colorado, some of the teens opened up about how incensed they were that, when yet another school shooting happens in a mostly white suburban area, some reporter always says, “they never thought it would happen in a peaceful place like this.”  These young people blew me away by seeming to intrinsically understand that injustice and danger can lurk anywhere and articulated a sense that a society that can degrade any group of people actually sets into motion a cycle of dehumanization that can lead to all kinds of terrors for everyone.  
I believe Dr. King prophetically, and now I am using the term more in the lines of forecasting, I believe he may have imagined some of the nightmare scenarios we are experiencing in today’s headlines.   After all, how can we truly be a free people if we can also recognize that some people are “more free” than others?  That’s not freedom at all, it’s not true peace, and we have to combat this lack of equity now more than ever.
So let’s imagine 2019 as a year of building up what King called, “creative tension.” A year to out-create the hate that is floating all around us, too often punctuating our airwaves and eardrums. May we actively step into a way of being that is more courageous than cautious, may we recognize that waiting for the next Martin Luther King Jr. to arrive on the scene may be prolonging the “wait” towards “never”, and may we recognize that we’ve always had everything we need to bend history towards justice. We have ears. We have hearts. We have hands. We have feet. We have voices and votes and bodies to walk alongside in this work towards real freedom.

It’s how we use all our gifts that reveal the true contents of our characters.



The Race Relations and Diversity Task Force of Birmingham.  

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Who Get's Slapped in Detroit?

Turning the Other Cheek = Resilience

A live story, told November 27, 2018 at Red Bull Radio in Detroit about how turning the other cheek is actually an act of resilience, resistance, and strength. Part of Just Speak, Incorporated's Starting Point Storytelling evening. Who's cheeks are getting slapped in Detroit?

Dismantling Romanticized Demonizing


This pretty much sums up the feeling I had when I launched this blog.  Thank you @craigasauros.

Ask yourself, ask your church, how do they feel about this statement.  

Friday, November 16, 2018

Thank You, Teen HYPE


With a complicated array of emotions, or as I've overheard the kids saying, "all the feels," I am stepping away from my role at Teen HYPE.  I got to serve here for my year-long Challenge Detroit Fellowship, and though I'm looking forward to moving on and connecting more deeply with ongoing community activism and neighborhood work in our city, I will miss these young people.  I will miss this dedicated staff.  It is not an overstatement to say it truly has become a second family.

Before working here, I split my time being a teacher evaluator in Detroit Public Schools and a Lyft driver.  Most of my daytime passengers were Eastsiders who needed rides to work at plants in the suburbs.  Black Eastsiders who taught me that taking a Lyft is more reliable than trusting the DDOT bus to be on time; who taught me that even though ride-sharing is expensive, it is still more affordable than owning a car and paying between $500 and $600 a month for the country's most ridiculously expensive auto insurance.

When I was in the suburbs, as Lyft works, I would get requests near where I'd drop off my neighbors.  Now, it's true that most of my passengers, regardless of the zip code they resided in, were kind and considerate people.  But it is also true that the only awful experiences I had were all in the suburbs.  The rudest, most demanding, and most threatening individuals I had to share a car-space with all hailed from Oakland and Macomb counties. The average riders north of 8 Mile were adults who needed rides because they had a DUI; older folks needing to get to doctor appointments and run errands; or city folks needing rides back to the city around 3pm after their morning shifts at GM in Warren and other plants.

But as I've written about in previous posts, even the nicest suburban passengers would, too often, utter disparaging comments about Black Detroiters.  Rarely was this venomous or said in a way that echoes what news outlets might call "racist behavior."  No, this was the euphemistic comments that "nice" white people speak when they are sure only white people are listening, things like: 

"I've also thought about being a Lyft driver, but aren't you worried about picking people up in Detroit?"  


The King of Badmouthing Detroit
Now, as you can imagine, I'd almost always push back and challenge their assumptions.  I made it my mission to dispel the single story they'd been spoon fed about Black Detroiters by the likes of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Palpatine, eh, Patterson, and the rest of his Stormtroopers.  Mostly white men who'd designed the northern suburbs to serve as a sort of Intergalactic Empire fleet surrounding Detroit, once the most prosperous city in the world, with Patterson's rhetoric armed like the Death Star itself, intent on obliterating.  (If you don't believe me, read this article, "Drop Dead, Detroit!")

Patterson's descriptions about Detroiters have been far too effective for decades, and he keeps getting re-elected.  (Not even mentioning his policies!)  If, as you're reading this, you believe that you're certainly going to get mugged if you find yourself too many blocks astray from Woodward, and too far north of the Boulevard, his words have sunk in.  Now I'm not saying there are no dangers in this city.  Every city has dangers.  But to be fair, so does every college campus.  So does every suburban high school, (just ask our kids in the "massacre generation").  So does every home with a parent misusing drugs, whether that is crack cocaine, crystal meth, or prescribed narcotics.  And desperation and despair, especially when mixed with firearms, is extremely dangerous everywhere.  But Patterson's powerful platform has purposefully shaped the hatred of Detroit.  His trickled-down ideology fueled the shock and outrage our suburban neighbors would hurl at my parents as we were heading out to events in the city, stammering so hard their pink faces turned red, shouting, "are you crazy, do you wanna get your kids shot?"

Back on the roads, some of the most disturbing comments I'd hear from my afternoon passengers were about the teenagers in Detroit when we'd be driving by high schools letting out.  The sentiments seemed to fall into two categories: either these young people were reduced to merely criminals-in-training, or they were just pathetic and needing of an overwhelming amount of charity, so much help that those "compassionate" riders felt hopeless.

Amidst these juxtapositions floating around in the backseat of my Honda, it dawned on me:

I didn't really know any Detroit teenagers. So when Teen HYPE offered me a role, I enthusiastically joined the team.


That time they taught me Crazy 8s
When I started as the Manager for Mission Advancement in the summer of 2017, I was struck with the strong sense of welcome from both the staff and the teens.  Not the simple, hi-nice-to-meet-you indifference.  But welcome.  Act silly with us and play improvisational theater games, Mr. Matt.  Look at my prom photos!  Do you have kids, Mr. Matt?  Bring them by to visit!  Sure, they can come with us to Cedar Point!

At the time, I was the only white person on staff, and being that I entered the space as a "straight" white male (straight is not really accurate, but that's for another blog), I knew I was entering a sacred space as an outsider.  Even though I had a legitimate job, I was still a guest, especially as far as the youth were concerned.  And yet, the welcome I experienced at Teen HYPE reminded me of how the New Orleans East community fed me vegetarian gumbo my first year as a teacher in 1999, even after going through a meteoric burn-out when I was exposed as a ridiculous white savior wanna-be.  I knew a little better this time, I would enter with a posture of listening, of gently asking to hear stories and share pieces of my story when asked or when it seemed appropriate.

Sadly, in my active listening, I can affirm that there are, indeed, dangers in Detroit.  But not so much for me.  More for the kids growing up here.  There is trauma involved when too many fathers and uncles are taken from families and have long prison sentences for petty drug crimes.  There are fears walking to and from school, with subtle and overt pressures to engage in all kinds of risky behaviors.  There is anxiety living amidst jobless and bankrupt neighbors, or even caretakers, within a city that recently declared bankruptcy, whose desperation might lead to destructive outbursts.  Mental health is a real concern here; suicide prevention interventions are truly needed here.  More job opportunities are also critical, jobs that meet a diverse range of needs and draw from a diverse range of talents.  And though I can't put my finger on it directly, I believe that the Pattersonian messaging, recycled over and over again, has not only infected the thoughts of our suburban communities.  I suspect those negative views of Detroiters have been internalized by our young citizens, and may have a subconcious impact on their collective sense of self-worth and value.

But these realities are not the whole story.  

Teen HYPE is interrupting this narrative in a profound way by first acknowledging the real struggles that young people face, but then never allowing that to be where the story gets stuck.  And this, for me, tells me Detroit's future is in much better shape than we've been led to believe.  I can say that I've gotten to know young people who are poised to become our city, state, and nation's vision-casters, organizers, and leaders.  These are brilliant, resilient, compassionate, and hope-filled members of our community.  And that is something to celebrate.

In fact, I am literally overwhelmed with how much positivity I experienced during my time here.  So here are some snapshots of the story, but keep in mind that these are only some moments from the past 18 months of Teen HYPE's nearly 15 year journey:  

The Studio Museum in Harlem
In the summer of 2017, we took a leadership development retreat to New York City, where staff and students alike studied restorative justice and legal advocacy for people in Harlem who couldn't afford to hire attorneys. We also studied comedic timing on Broadway, both at an actual performance and afterwards while we were cracking jokes around Times Square!

Practicing Design Thinking with Detroit Riverfront Conservancy
Later in 2017, The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy invited our young people to a "Design-a-Park" event, where students were asked to imagine and articulate how money should be spent on a new outdoor community space.  It was there I learned that Belle Isle used to have free parking, and our students were of one mind that any new park needed to remain free and open to everyone.

One of the opening scenes of Mis-Taken?
Me, CEO Ambra Redrick and Alum Mia Monet at art show
Alternatives To Jails
Early 2018 brought the debut of our annual play, Mis-Taken?, which grappled with the complicated emotions, fallout, and social impact that mass incarceration has had on our young people.  We researched the loophole in the 13th Amendment that permits an insidiously hidden form of modern slavery; we learned that  228,000 kids in Michigan have a parent in prison or on parole; we cried alongside members who told heartwrenching testimonies; and then we braided all of these strands of story together into one stunning production.  We also produced an art exhibit showcasing original pieces from Detroit high-school students alongside work from women and men, many mothers and fathers, currently held in one of Michigan's prisons.  Our work within this realm was so well respected that the Detroit Justice Center collaborated with our teens to conduct a Design Thinking session on what Wayne County might do instead of spending $533,000,000 on a new jail.  One idea they centered on was to create Detroit's first restorative justice center.




Garbage Bag Chic
Gearing up to climb in West Bloomfield
Camp Miniwanca
Over the summer of 2018, we deepened bonds through experiential learning trips.  We screamed and cheered together on high-ropes courses in the forest; we discovered some hilariously wacky creativity during a Project Runway-style unconventional materials fashion show challenge; and we enjoyed Michigan's lakes, rivers, and dunes.  At our all-night overnight, once enough of the new Peer Educators learned the epic Teen HYPE Pledge, I got schooled in the game of GaGa Ball, (which delighted my nine-year-old daughter because she had been trying to explain it to me for weeks...) Thanks to these new teens in my life, I was able to show off my skills when I got back home.  And, both my daughters were invited back on the Cedar Point trip for the second summer in a row!

Cobo Hall Presentation
Amidst all of this fun, our teens were reporting that more needed to be done for mental health awareness and suicide prevention for their peers throughout the city, especially for kids who come from families that stigmatize counseling as an indicator of weakness.  Though we didn't exactly realize it at the time, these early conversations were starting to lay the groundwork for the 2019 stage production that is currently being written, entitled, "Hidden In The Shadows."  Peer Educators wrote original poems about how suicide and depression had touched their lives very personally, and were asked to perform them at a gathering of mental health professionals at Cobo Hall.  Friends we had made in Queens the summer before came to help our young people create their own public service announcements around mental health and substance misuse.    

Ambra, Brandon, Marlowe Stoudamire, myself, and Dorothy
Dorothy Smith, our Senior Manager of Strategic Partnerships, and I collaborated with Marlowe Stoudamire of Butterfly Effect Detroit to host a new series called Courageous Conversations.  Our vision was to create a teen version of the Detroit Urban Consulate.  Marlowe and Brandon, one of our Peer Educators, facilitated a heartfelt and moving discussion about the resiliency many teenagers have to discover within themselves to grow up amidst really challenging, and too often, traumatic situations within our city.  
Youth Summit Breakfast, 2018

This connected quite seamlessly into our annual YouthQuake last August, where our core Teen HYPE leaders welcomed new high school students into the fold during a week of community service and civic engagement.  The week led up to our Youth Summit, where these teens brought their stories and newfound perspectives to the table in dialogue with Detroit city council members, pastors, educators, entrepreneurs, and developers.  If the city wants young people to stay and live locally after they turn 18, we fervently believe they need to involve their voices at the planning tables, immediately.  We set those tables.

Teen HYPE with Mayor Mike Duggan, city leaders, and health professionals
And finally, linking to Teen HYPE's longstanding commitment to providing excellent sexual health education throughout Detroit's high-schools and middle-schools, Mayor Mike Duggan launched iDecide Detroit.  Dozens of locations throughout the city will provide teen friendly services and access to STI Testing, condoms, birth control and counseling.  Teen HYPE members were asked to help advise and then became the literal face of the entire campaign, providing photos, televised interviews, and promotional materials to get the word out.  
Teen HYPE youth on billboards and buses to promote iDecide Detroit


To L. Brooks Patterson and all your many fans, I want you to know: 

Teen HYPE proves that you are very wrong about Detroit.  

You've missed it.  And, for your lack of being in touch with reality, I feel sorry for you.  But the young people who are growing, learning, and leading are preparing to take your place, soon.  You really should mark your calendars for the 2019 play, but please don't come if you're not willing to listen with an open heart. 

Before signing off and pushing publish on this blogpost, I also must take time to celebrate and express deep gratitude to my coworkers.  I have been taught, time and time again, that it is not the job of Black people, or predominantly Black organizations, to teach Whiteous people about reality.  It is not the responsibility of people with brown skin to help people with pink skin understand their explicit, implicit, and too often, complicit roles in systemic racism and its connection to chronic poverty.  It is not black folks job to make white folks feel comfortable.  And yet, you decided to do just that with me.  I am forever grateful for your trust, patience, and friendship:

To Dee for teaching me all the ins, outs, and politics of coalition building in Detroit while listening to me vent and vent and vent about the insanity of eTapestry: thank you.

To LaRon, and Olushola, for teaching me how to tie a bow-tie and then just doing it for me when I couldn't get it right: thank you.

To Sherisse for showing me New York City through your eyes, and hanging out with me in Austin when we were trying to figure out what exactly they meant by Detroit Style Pizza: thank you.

From A Night In Paradise at The Whittier, 2018
To Hugh for teaching me a little of the dance routine for This Is America.  And for naming me Matty Ice: thank you.  Truly, there's like 4 humans who are allowed to use Matty.  You're one of them.

To Ife for teaching me the joys of veganism even though I'm not there, yet, and for letting me drop in on your Yoga classes: thank you.

To Stephen-the-soon-to-be-Rookie-no-longer, thanks for letting me stir the pot in your Aaliyah versus Beyonce battle.

To Camille for reconnecting me to what is going on in the gay community, how much different it is than I remember from my days in Ann Arbor, and for letting me rest my healing leg on your office chair after my surgery: thank you.

To Tora for having grace with me when I totally was confused about who your partner was...thank you.  People are still laughing about that one.

To Mary for teaching me the secret powers of the P.S. in annual appeal letters even though you know that's not my native language, and for asking me to help design the donor appreciation event: thank you.

To Myriha for helping me find my creative voice again, by showing me the power of activism through art: thank you.

To Demitria, that after all you've been through, you still had time to bring a forgetful guy his keys.  Thank you for opening your life, and your journey, to all of us.  

To Callie, Callie, Callie Callie Callie, for best friending me over Game of Thrones and not firing me when I couldn't quite remember our secret handshake week to week: thank you.  And thank you for razzing me, time and time again.  Just remember, paybacks are on their way.


COO and Co-Founder Franky Hudson
To Franky for always opening your heart to my girls, and always opening your spirit to our discussions about life, mental health, and how important it is to pray about decisions when it comes to this work: thank you.  Thank you, also, for your grace with me as I slowly recognized that the privileges I had when I ran DOOR Los Angeles are not afforded in quite the same way to you and Ambra running Teen HYPE.  


CEO and Co-Founder and Walker's Legacy Power Award winner, Ambra Redrick
To Ambra for taking a chance on me when I accidentally applied because I wasn't Millennial enough to grasp LinkedIn: thank you.  And thank you for all the many talks about compassionate activism, for hearing me out when I didn't understand, for letting me in on the skepticism and scrutiny you and Franky have had to face as two incredible black women running a critically needed, though often misunderstood, non-profit.  Thank you for allowing me to conduct my job like a community organizing peacemaker, to listen, learn, and work hard to build bridges between everyone.

You are family, because you chose to adopt me. 

With love and admiration,
Matty Ice 

"Make yourselves at home and work for [Detroit's] welfare.  Pray for [Detroit's] well-being.  If things go well for [Detroit], things will go well for you." -Jeremiah 29:7, The Message (with additional paraphrasing)

P.S. You can truly know that you're investing in Detroit's future by giving to Teen HYPE today.  Choose positive youth development that isn't afraid to confront real barriers and build sturdy bridges of ample opportunities.  Make your #GivingTuesday donation here!




Saturday, November 10, 2018

On White Fragility, Again

Once again, #DismantlingWhiteousness is NOT about how much I hate white people or my own skin.  It's demanding that white people own up to our major roles in creating, causing, perpetuating, maintaining, and ignoring real life injustices against people who aren't able to "pass as white."

If your pinkish-orangish skin can't handle that and is now turning darker shades of red, you suffer from #WhiteFragility.  But it's really like this:

Imagine two kids on a playground:  They both love the merry-go-round you have to push to keep spinning.  But one kid never lets the other kid get on by herself.  Recess after recess goes by and the first girl just keeps riding the merry-go-round on her own and won't get off so the other kid can.  One day, the kid who's been waiting for her turn decides to just jump on while it's spinning.  The first girl starts crying and whining, and goes to tell the recess teacher that the second girl "pushed" her off.  She probably will say she got hurt and carry on in such a way that the teacher has to call the other kid's parents.  

White Fragility is like that.  People of other skin colors are making some gains and more able to demand equal spaces at the table, equal places in government, equal turns on the playground equipment.  Instead of sharing, we complain and whine and say we're getting hurt by this.

This fragility is the fuel that ignites injustice towards greater insanity.  In playground terms, it balloons into the bratty kid telling her parents that another kid hurt her on the merry-go-round, those parents getting the playground condemned; and blaming it all on "kids like those."  But keep spinning long enough, and gentrification might come around the mountain and repaint that "vintage merry-go-round" and start charging admission for entrance to the playground, or just make sure it's in a part of town that only some can still afford to live......

My white sisters and brothers, do we want to go down in history as the world's brats?  As the world's biggest ball hogs?  As the world's biggest cry-babies?

If only this were contained to just playgrounds, and not out in backwoods and city streets and deserted areas along borders where bodies have literally been piling up for hundreds of years.

And if only it didn't fuel the insanity of things like zip code segregation and land development and gerrymandering and prison sentencing and lynching and planting drugs in people's cars and.....

There is no strength in pretending ignorance.  It's cowardice.  But when Jane Elliott asks us, as white people, if we would like to be treated like black people are treated in this country, and none of us raise our hands....we are not ignorant.  We know something isn't fair.  We know we have the longer end of the stick.  Even if we aren't rich and even if we've had our share of struggles.  We still know something is deeply wrong.

It's time for taking turns and maybe, just maybe, as we begin, letting the kids who've been waiting on the sidelines get a longer turn than us. 

And you will certainly make mistakes.  I often say, the world won't end if someone calls you a racist.  You'll be okay, and you can try again, you can get back on the merry-go-round.  Far worse than being called a racist, is having to walk through this world in a body that is directly threatened and harmed by racism.  So please keep that in mind, but try.  Try to take turns and gain perspective in the waiting.

It doesn't have to stay this way.




Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Becoming The Neighbor

What is it that makes a few city blocks feel like a neighborhood? Of course, the schools, churches and businesses matter. But underneath those infrastructures, within those buildings, living and working and laughing and arguing, are the people. People who have gifts and needs and hopes and fears and dreams alongside other people with all of those things going on as well. People who have stories to share. 

I’ve always seen storytelling as the most distinct element of being a person. When you think about it, it’s kind of a defining aspect of humanity. Other creatures communicate, and certainly some exhibit shades of empathy, but not in the unique way we do as people.

From the intersections of Van Dyke and Mack, the overlapping of the Pingree Park, Islandview, and Village neighborhoods in Detroit’s 48214, Edythe Ford shared an idea with me. “We need a community newspaper. Not just an informational newsletter, but a new newspaper that’s all about this community and our many, many voices.”

Great. How do you create a newspaper? I had no idea.  Especially one that would be more about collaborative storytelling than investigative journalism.  Maybe it should start with working on becoming a good neighbor?

I grew up at the intersection of 13 Mile and Southfield. I was blessed to have parents who did not heed some of our neighbor’s dire “concerns” back in the 80s and 90s ("how can you take your kids to Detroit, you’re just going to get them shot!” More like threats than warnings…..)

I’d often tell my suburban friends about my love for Xochimilco’s back in the day, and they’d usually just scratch their heads. Even so, my knowledge of the city was certainly limited to Southwest, the old Tiger Stadium, some parts of Midtown, and Trapper’s Alley. Before moving to this Eastside neighborhood two years ago, I’d never seen it. The closest I came was Great Aunt Dorothy’s funeral at Mt. Elliott Cemetery, but that’s a far cry from the vibrancy of Pingree Park.

As part of my fellowship with Challenge Detroit, we were asked to partner with a local non-profit for our final project. Edythe’s idea was compelling, so we met up and got to work. Early in the research, I met with Adam Selzer at Civilla, as they had printed a really attractive paper. “Anyone can make a newspaper, there's really no magic to that. But asking and answering 'who is our audience and what do they care about,’ is how to build a readership.” With so many different people in the 48214, this proves to be no easy task. Not only that, some might say printed media is a dying art. But then again, vinyl records are back in action, so maybe what goes around truly comes around?

Years ago, when my family was driving along Mt. Elliott to bury Aunt Dorothy, one extended family member kept making disparaging comments about Detroiters. “See, this is why you shouldn’t give nice things to black people. Look at how they’ve ruined these beautiful old homes.” The teenager version of me was angry with him, but I didn’t have the courage to fight back. What I wanted to do instead, even then, was get out of the car and go meet the families living in those homes and hear their stories.

I’m certain I would’ve heard something similar to what my current neighbors are teaching me: they’ve applied for loans to fix the caving-in roof but the bank tells them the repairs are more expensive than the house is worth. Once so many auto industry jobs left, steady income was much harder to come by. So a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth was circulating out in the suburbs, the place where I grew up, where we were able to fix our roof when the time came without too much trouble.

With that memory, I decided to start my explorations, or neighboring, along Mack Avenue. Edythe had already started polling residents about their overall interest in a paper, what types of content they might read, and what issues mattered to them. So I focused on businesses, wanting to first reach out to resilient owners who’ve been here for years, even decades. Sure, there are exciting new storefronts popping up in The Villages and along Jefferson, and we certainly want to celebrate and make space for that as well, but first and foremost, start with the people who’ve been holding this part of Detroit together all these years.

I met Joe at Bewick Market, Ruby at Jay’s Flower Shop, got to sit down and really chat with Darius at EJ’s Social Club. Eric Hood Jr. shared a bit about the story of Hood’s Tires, and Eric Hood Sr. began to fill me in about the interconnected ecosystem of business owners along Mack. Louis Nafso, owner of Motor City Market Place at the Eastern edge of our zip code, generously shared his perspectives on the need for more focus on residency around his block.  

And these are just a few of the stories I got to hear on two summer afternoons. Imagine what else we might all learn together.

Our hope is to create a newspaper filled with compelling narratives from our diverse Detroit community. We certainly want to focus on the positive stories, but we also want to not shy away from the friction. Alongside being a writer, I am also co-founder of The Table Setters, a small non-profit dedicated to creating vulnerable and brave intersections between groups of people that, because of how zoning and residential laws of the past have sequestered us into homogenous groupings, never cross paths. I’ve learned that authentic diversity is actually really, really hard. Tolerance is easier, but we all know tolerance goes out the window when conflict hits. That script is well-worn. Like when an accident on your street brings everyone out, and then because everyone is out, old wounds resurface and fights break out and suddenly you have three options: take a side, try to be a peacemaker, or remain indoors and not get involved.

Diversity is indeed hard work. But I think striving towards equitable diversity is the only way forward. It’s one thing to come to the table, it’s quite another thing to come back to the table, again and again, with hope that doing so will truly build up a stronger community.

In that spirit, The Neighborhopes to make space to explore tough questions:

As Detroit is changing, is it for all of us, the newcomers and the long-term residents? And if it’s unbalanced, how can we redirect in mutually beneficial ways?

Knowing that the suburbs were intentionally designed with legalized segregation, what will it take to make a more integrated city? Could we do it here? Places like The Commons give me glimpses of hope.

What might it feel like if we strove to become color-brave instead of color-blind?

How do we celebrate the successes of schools, churches, and businesses and help to share the wealth in our community?

How might we hold each other accountable to actively listening to each others’ perspectives? And, as a European American who gets to be called “white,” how can I do a better job of trusting the ideas of my neighbors with more melanin and many more drops of sweat, tears, and even blood, in this place called Detroit?

How do we work together to find a good balance between all of our needs to feel safe, both physically and socially, with our hopes to not diminish the full humanity of people who are different from ourselves on the grounds of race, class, gender, age, cultural, economic backgrounds?

How do we become better and better neighbors to one another?


I pray this paper may become a bridge building space. I look forward to hearing and reading your stories soon, to learning how to be the best neighbor I can be.

See you around.

(this blogpost is also a draft of an article for an upcoming issue of the new community newspaper)

Thursday, July 19, 2018

544 Days....

544 days of learning just how far wealthy white male privilege stretches. Piles of shocking moments, new depths of indecency, seemingly endless passes granted. The ability to be purposefully underprepared, purposefully obtuse and contradictory, unashamedly self-serving, unapologetically dishonest, and even outright threatening: these allowances are not granted to everyone.  Not even every "leader of the free world," whatever that is supposed to mean....

We've seen that massive human power, left unchecked and without accountability, leads towards monstrosity. I write against the spectre of whiteousness, which is the assumption that everything "white" is the most "natural," "best," the most "human." When that fallacy is joined with great money and power, it has historically proven to be destructive. Yes, for all people who are not white, wealthy, and male, but I believe it hurts every single one of us. I am recovering, still, always, from how this assumption has marked my life, both with blessings that I am learning to not take for granted, but also with an expectation, both overtly and deeply hidden in the fabric of our social systems, to keep this as the status quo. It comes out in ugly ways in my arguments with the woman who married me, with my expectations about "how something is supposed to go," with some of my deepest struggles. Please continue to hold me accountable.

#DismantlingWhiteousness is about finding more authentic and deeply formed love by looking outside that status quo. It's about recognizing that diversity was part of the plan, part of God's endgame, and what ultimately brings more strength, resiliency, and beauty in our day to day living. 

-Matthew

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Fire Hazards of Diversity

Here's the truth: diversity is hard.  

Do we let our child cry herself to sleep or comfort her because she's expressing irrational fear over the sounds of the radiator?  This is a question that two different parents, that would be Darcie and I, come at from two different angles.

Our last play at Teen HYPE, focusing on the deep challenges caused by the over-incarceration of parents in Detroit, sparked a range of conversation and dialogues.  So for next year's production, do we go deeper into the school-to-prison pipeline?  What about school shootings and gun violence?  Or should we turn away from the "confronting barriers" of our mission statement and focus on "celebrating youth?"  These are real questions that our staff is wrestling with today, but beyond that, what do the young people have to say about all of it?  Literally, hundreds of ideas are bouncing around right now.

At Challenge Detroit, my team is currently working on imagining how the Detroit Historical Museum can harness the successes of the nationally recognized Detroit67 exhibit and related events (detailing many perspectives on the uprising in Detroit during the summer of 1967), and move forward with new themes and structures that invest teenagers and young adults for the long haul.  If Mayor Mike Duggan truly wants Detroit's youth to "stay in Detroit," what kinds of investments and plans do we have to engage their interests, ambitions, hopes and dreams?   


As much as I celebrate the active pursuit of expanding diversity, I recognize how tempting it is to want to just work alone, or seek out people who think exactly like I do.

******

In the early days of The Table Setters, Marvin and I were working on a presentation for DOOR Los Angeles about racial reconciliation.  We knew that we agreed that using the text commonly known as The Good Samaritan (though Jesus never uses the word "good"), was the right foundation.  We wanted to underline that sometimes the best idea, the most compassionate solution, comes from the person you might be inclined to look down upon, the person you might see as the enemy, or in the case of DOOR, the person you came to "serve" in your mission work.  But where to go from there? Marvin gave me a few weeks to put together the flow of a presentation that we would review together, while he was sourcing video content and other material.

I started.  Then I scratched my head.  A lot.  Was I going to focus on reparations?  Was I going to focus on the loophole in the 13th Amendment that repackaged slavery into the modern prison industrial complex?  Was I going to keep the conversation centered around black and white issues, or should I weave in dynamics of injustices done upon Native, Latinx, Asian, and Arab-American peoples as well?  If I do so, will it just water everything down into the basic "tolerance training 101" that we had both grown so tired of? 

But on a deeper level, I wanted to have something to show Marvin that I had truly been listening to the issues he was most concerned about.  In short, I wanted to present him something perfect.

Marvin asked me to show him what I was working on.  I hemmed and hawed, uh, gimme another day or two.

On the morning of the third day past my deadline, he texted, "CALL ME."  I was walking along Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles to catch the bus into Hollywood.  

I called him.  He asked me if it was ready, and I stalled with rifling through some of the questions I wrote above.  He interrupted and a huge argument erupted.  I'll spare your eyes the curse words.

"Why are you trying to shut me out of this plan?!  Why won't you show me pieces of what you're working on?!"

"You can see it, but you said you wanted me to have a full draft ready!!"

"Oh, I'm about to call you the white devil!  Just like always, white people take the story from people of color and shape it how they think it should be."

"You kinda just did call me the white devil!"

By this time, we are yelling near the top of our voices. I've just watched the bus roll by and I've stepped into an alleyway.  I failed to notice a man, I presume living homelessly, sitting on some crates alongside the building.  He gets up, taps me on the shoulder, and scoffs, "man, keep it down, some of us are trying to rest in this alley!"  My face was hot with a new embarrassment amidst my anger.  

"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry."

Marvin thinks I'm talking to him, "I don't need your apologies anymore, I'm sick of this waiting on you, I'm ready to just be done...."

I interject, "No, I was saying sorry to the homeless man I just woke up from our yelling."

Pause.  One or two beats.  And then, Marvin just busts out laughing.  So hard I think he might be crying.  But it's clearly laughter.  And it's contagious, starting to catch a fire inside me as well.  Both of us gasping and trying to come up for air, he's joyfully working to convey that he's standing on his porch in Burbank in his boxer shorts, yelling his head off at this white guy on the phone, and his neighbors must think he'd lost his mind.  It's a pretty epic scene.  A story we love to tell.

Then Marvin starts to reflect on how this is just what makes it hard: one person trying to get it perfect to impress another person, meanwhile shutting that other person out of the decision making process, even unintentionally.  It threatened to upend our entire project.  We decided to meet up at a coffeeshop and just hash it out.  We decided instead of calling it quits, we bring everything we'd gathered up to then.  We decided to come back to the table.  I'm thankful for that man who interrupted our argument, I looked for him later, but I think he actually caught the bus I was supposed to be on.

Diversity initiatives are indeed a good thing, but so many stop short of actually considering the challenge that will come when diverse ideas collide.  Ideas that come from our experiences of being diverse in genders, religious beliefs, countries of origin, and how society has treated us based on our skin color and other things we have absolutely no control over.  Who gets the final say?  Who gets the veto power?  Marvin and I realized how critical it was that our own workflow was a microcosm of the challenges every organization faces when they claim to honor diversity.

So: our honest solution was that we just have to keep showing up and doing our best.  Listen, reconsider, and come to the best conclusions we can make when everyone feels like their contribution has been respected.  The perfectionist in me has to constantly learn there is so much work, so many bad and unjust habits to dismantle, and so many true opportunities for incremental healing embedded in the process alone.  Which means that sometimes, the process employed might be more important than the end product.

I bring this forward with me in today's work.

******

I've come to see Challenge Detroit as a place where we whittle big questions down to, hopefully usable "idea kindling."  Some of us bring our talents to focus on the small but very necessary twigs, while others contribute larger sticks as structural support.  As we only have six full working days with each project, this is what we can realistically provide.  We invite the partner to light the match and hope that our concoction of ideas, generated by a diverse bunch of individuals, actually catches some fire.  Of course, the partner will have to supply the logs for sustainability.

Our aim is to present something balanced and effective, that can be stoked to generate more and more warmth and energy.  But if anything is out of balance, the fire might not start, or the fire might explode into something destructive that threatens future processes.  1967 didn't just happen.  That bonfire was building for decades and decades and might have been prevented if the major change agents in the city actually took time to value the input of each member of the city, not just their highest paying customers and constituents....

So how can we honor everyone's ideas and still produce really good results?  How can Detroit move forward in a sustainable way for everyone who calls this city home, for everyone at this table?  There is so much energy, so many sparks flying right now, that I'm thankful that the Detroit Historical Society is working on how to come together in new and sustainable ways to prevent the fiery summer of 1967 from happening again.  

I believe change might have to happen slower than many people like to consider, but I also think that there can be healing in the process if we commit to staying at these tables and making sure we value the thoughts and perspectives of each person sitting next to us.  

It will not be easy, but I believe it will be worth it.  If we commit to keep coming back together.