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.