Thursday, November 3, 2016

I'm Voting for Michelle Obama in my Heart

Shirley Chisholm ran for President in 1972
So the Cubs won the World Series!  Anything is possible, yes?  Maybe I will write in Michelle Obama on the ballot.....

A family member has recently criticized this entire venture as being guilt-driven and bleeding-heart-liberal, or something along similar lines meant to dismiss and condescend.

When I've explained my positions and perspectives, he's furthered his criticism by saying his black friend and co-worker totally agrees with him.

Now, in some ways, it can be adorably insensitive when a pink-skinned person says they are not part of systemic racism because they have "one black friend."  But when it is meant to discredit an entire people group's struggle for life and equality, it's not at all cute.

This is only my launch point.  I'm not going to try to prove to any of you that I have many shades-of-brown-skinned friends with bloodlines tracing back to Africa, Asia, or South America.  I want to talk about leadership, because leadership matters and it has made a profound difference in my life to see myself as both a leader, but more importantly, a follower of diverse employers.

The two biggest questions I receive as a Lyft driver in Detroit these days are:

1. Why on earth would you leave Los Angeles to move to cold, wintery Detroit? (ask me that question in March and I might have a different, less enthusiastic response!)

2. How have you, as a white male, come to care so much about fighting systemic racism in America?

In my last role as a non-profit ministry director at DOOR's Los Angeles site, my executive director, an incredible pink-skinned man named Glenn Balzer who hails from Canada, taught me about the "long haul."  As he was hoping to diversify his staff, a board member mentor told him that he could hire whomever he wanted to but it would not change very much.  "If you want to achieve any semblance of authentic diversity, it matters who is making the decisions."  So DOOR spent about 15 years tending to this incredibly hard work, with many tears and arguments alongside laughter and real victory.  They slowly transformed from a group led by mostly white men, as evidenced in the photo below of the Beloved Community Council, the heart behind the entire mission.  In fact, this BCC serves as a major inspiration to our work at The Table Setters, especially lifting up the importance of staying at the diverse tables, not cutting and running when it gets uncomfortable.

The DOOR Network Beloved Community Council, 2013.
So to answer question number 2: I believe my life has been blessed and informed by many bosses, managers, and spiritual mentors.  However, being led and taught by people with browner skin than mine, along with people who have tended to their own complicity in systemic injustice, has informed and shaped who I currently am today.

In fact, as I reflected back, I have had mostly female African-American bosses and managers. And I want to thank them as both a sign of appreciation and a moment of recognition: whatever fears you may have of a "Black Planet," my experiences of submitting to the authority of non-white-male leadership has been a profound blessing.   (Yes, it is complicated, especially in this season as I work to find a job in ministry or non-profit work that cares deeply about diversity.  Hiring me is, in light of all that I'm writing, a unique and risky challenge.  I constantly remind myself that true diversity will require a much more robust appreciation of taking turns and sharing, listening to ideas that don't originate in our own heads, more than many men who look like me have ever had to deal with.....)

Here is a cloud of witnesses, some living, some who've moved on, who have taught me directly the most about this work. Again, these are mostly African-American women, but also a diverse group of leaders who've taught me the grace of taking turns and believing in diversity with integrity.

Thylias Moss, Author and Professor
Thylias Moss: though she was a professor at University of Michigan, she managed the first book of poetry I ever published.  She worked our classroom like an editor getting books ready for market.  I learned about the business of being creative from her, and she full-court pressed me to find my voice.  She also dared to ask if the death penalty was a form of "delayed abortion."

Levi Price: many pages on this blog have already mentioned Levi, a man with a life sentence who taught me the grace of Jesus like nobody before and nobody since.  I am his Onesimus, he is my Paul.  (See Philemon).  Levi "hired" me to tell the truth of Jesus, that Jesus is present in prison and in the hearts of prisoners.

Buzz Alexander: An Anglo-American professor who launched the Prison Creative Arts Project.  Buzz taught me that media outlets, even the most popular movies, have played a powerful role in perpetuating stereotypes that demonize, criminalize, or trivialize people who do not look like us.  Though we've made progress here in the last 20 years, we have a long way to go in reshaping narratives.  I was never paid by Buzz, but I was asked to serve on the early Advisory Board of PCAP.

Patsy Smith Yaeger: An Anglo-American professor who taught literature and women's studies.  Patsy also hired me to take care of her two children, both with brown skin.  She often shared with me the complications of what it meant to raise children from another race, regularly getting stopped in the supermarket by African-American's who asked if she "knew what she was doing."  (Dear God, as I looked her up for this post, I learned that she passed away two years ago of ovarian cancer.  Thank you for her leadership in my life.)

Dr. Kelvin Adams is now the
Superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools
Dr. Kelvin Adams: Dr. Adams was the first principal who ever hired me, and at the time, that was in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward at Fannie C. Williams Middle School.  More importantly, Dr. Adams called me into his office in November of 1999, when I felt like quitting after Deshondalisa and her classmates cut me down to size.  Kelvin Adams said, "Mr. Schmitt, you're not quitting, so how can we get you back on track towards the reasons I hired you?"

Sister Helen Prejean:  My first year teaching in New Orleans was very challenging on every level.  Of all the people I knew in Louisiana, I had the fortune of meeting Sister Helen through my work with the Prison Creative Arts Project.  With her partner in crime, Sister Margaret Maggio, both pink-skinned like me, Helen took a break from their work to fight the systemic racism and social injustice of the Death Penalty to visit me in my classroom and give me tips from their days of being Catholic School teachers.  And they still teach me about injustice in the legal infrastructure of our country.  I didn't work for them, per se, but I do support them as much as I can.

Sonya Oliver Williams: My second boss in New Orleans, this Principal taught me how to be myself in my classroom.  She didn't need me, she'd say, to try and "become black or Vietnamese" like the kids or like her.  She needed me to just be me, to just teach them, because that would ring much more true and authentic.  And though I didn't work "for" the following African-American female teachers, they were co-workers and department heads and each taught me how to not only survive as a teacher, they taught me how to find my own groove: Davon Hayes, Darlene Alexander, Tiffany Cloud, Donna Bousqueto-Wheaton, and Troylynn Paul.  And they taught me how to have fun in that process.

Diane Robinson: Diane was my first boss in Los Angeles, hired me to work for Teach For America in 2001.  Originally, we were both excited about the idea of a former teacher working as a development director.  The job did not go very well, and I buckled under the pressure of having to raise $2,000,000 in a new city that I knew nothing about, all the while feeling more drawn to the program side.  So Diane let me go in 2002, and though it stung at the time, it wound up being a critical moment of rebirth for me.  (It was also really nice to reconnect with her at the 25th Anniversary of TFA in Washington DC last February)  While in that role, I had the pleasure of learning from Liz Dwyer (follow her at Los Angelista), Mikelle Willis, Ailin Tarbinian, Suzy Foster, Amanda Timberg, and Kristin Jeffrey, a wonderfully diverse team of  powerful women.

Graciella Sanchez Spears: Amidst my season of unemployment in LA, I secured an internship at a talent management firm in the office of Graciella (above).  Though I wasn't paid, Graciella brought me into her work in a professional and deeply involved way, allowing me to join phone calls with real-live celebrities that she managed.  During my time there, she boldly stepped away from the firm, asking me whether I'd like to join her as she launched her own company or remain and get a job in the music department of the firm.  She completely set it up for me, which happened to be with the manager of Tori Amos, my all-time favorite artist.  Even in the high octane world of the entertainment industry, Graciella showed incredible hospitality.  I worked with her for only 2 months, but I will never forget that experience.

Faye and Tina Treadwell with, you-know-who.
Tina Treadwell: Tina Treadwell and I met in the office of another talent agency over a discussion on the Holy Spirit, and then I went to her church during a Martin Luther King Jr. service.  From there, she directly and indirectly managed my music career.  She also hired me, sometimes paid, sometimes in more of a bartering manner, to care for her horse and her mother, the legendary manager Fayrene Treadwell before she passed away in 2011.  Tina let me crash in her garage, where I wrote dozens of songs.  Tina also prayed over the bread and cake at our wedding in 2005.

If you cross Angeles, you would be taken down.
And then hugged and loved on.
Angeles Echols-Brown: Tina Treadwell, amongst managing talent, served on the board of Educating Young Minds in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Tina called Angeles, and on that recommendation alone, EYM hired me to be a teacher in Los Angeles.  And Angeles whooped me with love.  She called my white saviorism out on the table while still lighting a fire under me to become a better and better educator.  Angeles and I would get into heated arguments often, but they would always end with either tears or a hug, usually both.  And almost always prayers.  From both of us.  Love and strength and faith.

Paula Ravets, PhD: I was hired by Paula and her husband to care for their son, which I did for several years.  A Jewish-American family, this family welcomed me into their High Holy day celebrations.  During my time of coming back into my Christian faith, it was profoundly important that Paula taught me the reasoning behind sacred rituals of Judaism.  We had great talks, often, about the hypocrisy that both Christians and Jews can be prone to, and I have deep respect for this family who has achieved incredible financial success in the midst of many personal trials.

Travis LeSesane: An African-American actor who further called me to dig deeper into my roots and perspectives.  I didn't work for him, but he was our best man at our wedding 11 years ago.  So he holds me accountable.  He is still my best man.

Dottie Ryan: Dottie passed away a few years back, and though she lived her final 8 years homelessly, she died with many friends around her.  Technically, I hired Dottie to educate young adults about the realities of poverty in Los Angeles.  But Dottie, a woman with pink skin, taught me about my own judgmental attitudes, and, once, called me up to ream me up about how I had insulted her.  I felt like I was getting fired.  I asked for forgiveness, and she came back the next week.

Toni White: Thanks to Dottie, the roots of the "Table Setting" occurred.  Toni became a regular speaker in our work, and I can say, I have learned volumes from her.  She's helped to flesh out the unique challenges of being an African-American woman struggling with poverty in LA.  Again, I technically hired her, but she has taught me about humility and rebuilding like no other.

Marvin Wadlow Jr:  This guy.  I want to call him my favorite African-American women, ha!  Marvin and I have taken care of each other's children.  Marvin has been an assistant director to me.  Marvin has driven me beyond crazy.  But Marvin stays at this table with me, and now that we are Co-Founders of The Table Setters, we technically work for one another.

Of the 27 people mentioned here, 15 of them are African-American and Latina women.  This has certainly shaped me, and though I've yet to be managed by someone from any of the many countries in Asia, I'd be happy to be.  My perspectives, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not, come from sharing many meetings and tables with decision makers who look different than me.

My prayer is that more of us can find willingness to be led by "the other," whomever that may be in their context.  Can we learn from them, can we handle even being fired by them?  Can we talk about personal and political matters in the break room together, sharing a little life together?  It is here where I find the source of my hope, that in Romans 14, we are all gathered to bring our culture and strength to the table, but not one of us matters more to God than the other.  And, I write against the tendency to see me, and those like me, as the only people worthy of being followed.

But of course, I'd love you to follow me on Twitter! Ha!

May the Beloved Community be seen more and more in our lifetime through sharing, learning, and taking turns.  Part of that includes taking turns and direction from Black Women, arguably a demographic that has been systemically one of the most disempowered section of our society these past 400 years.  Could Jesus' questions in Matthew 20 bear relevance here?

Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous? Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first. - Matthew 20:15-16, MSG.

No comments:

Post a Comment