Reducing prejudice and learning to talk to each other

I have been spending a lot of time finding ways into conversations that make me explain my reasoning in different ways, particularly around prejudice.

In the filter bubble age, this is especially challenging at times. I was lucky to go to college with a number of really thoughtful conservatives who would still engage with me though I was an outspoken organizer. They were willing to listen and ask me interesting questions, and they answered my own questions with patience and respect. I reached out to them to ask them what I should be reading now so I can have an informed conversation with more conservative communities. I also started going to church again about 9 months ago so I could learn about faith and how to read/discuss the gospels. In both cases, I’ve learned to examine my decisions in different ways and explain them in new ways. I am expanding the language I have to make my cases and answer questions I didn’t know to anticipate.

But I have a real reason to hope. This talk from TEDxMidAtlantic in 2016 is one I come back to frequently, especially after really hard conversations and times where I cannot find the language to engage with new communities. Deep Canvassing is so effective that this program was written up in Science.

I know this is not accessible to everyone and we each need to do what we can to build civil society together. I recognize my privilege and how I am able to move easily between my different communities and worlds to ask hard questions that may not be accessible to others. I can be a bridge. I don’t think it’s fair to expect everyone to do this all day every day, and those that already do are some of the bravest, strongest and most creative individuals I know.

But for those who can, I encourage you to expand your vocabulary and fluency in arguing your case in different communities across the United States. It’s necessary now, more than ever.

What does “winning” a political discussion in 2016 look like?

I’ll tell you now, it doesn’t have a grand ending.

What does it look like?

It looks like a conversation where you are uncomfortable because you need to state your values and your “truths” in ways you’ve taken for granted for a long time. You are uncomfortable because while these truths have guided your life and run in parallel to your decisions forever, you now have to say WHY and HOW they are true… possibly encountering that moment where you might have been wrong, or even just a little off, for a long time.

You are uncomfortable because you have to grapple with the externalities of decisions and systems that we all have to ignore from time to time to continue being optimistic about the future and to argue things will improve because we’re learning as we go. But there are externalities to every decision and we have to take responsibility for our decisions, right?

It looks like watching someone else grapple with this discomfort, both of you constantly fighting moments where you can see that switch that allows you to listen and be uncomfortable, or turn it off and stop listening, congratulate yourself for “being right.”

The uncomfortable is an important place for you both to play, and here you can empathize with each other. Maybe it’s a moment where you can both be wrong in different ways and come out with a better formulated argument and a backbone to your decisions that mean you are willing to acknowledge the externalities of your decisions head on.

What did it feel like for me last week?

I think I “won.” I say this because I had a goal: address the fake news problem with someone close to me. The conversation went terribly at first. I introduced the Washington Post piece investigating a fake news site. The response was: I try to read both sides of every argument. This completely deflected from the central issue, which was that this person was arguing with citations from fake news websites regularly. I had to explain why some news sources were “good” and others were “bad.” I also had to grapple with my daily philosophical meltdown of “what is truth?” The other person had to grapple with the fact that maybe their well intended research was faulty and they had been caught doing bad research. It was uncomfortable for both of us.

I was trying to do my job as a professional fact checker to right my corner of the universe and be helpful, but it seemed like it backfired and the gulf between us grew.

I left this conversation feeling defeated, but a few days later I noticed this person fact checking and tagging fake news sites in the comments on their friends’ Facebook pages… the same sites they’d been citing in arguments against me the week before. Maybe this was a quiet moment of “victory.” I smiled to myself, acknowledged what was taking place, and kept scrolling. I think we both grew from it.

Maybe then this mission into the “uncomfortable” was worth it. And now it’s time to try it again… maybe with harder issues. But I acknowledge that if I want to go there, I also need to be better prepared to be wrong and uncomfortable.

(Image credit: Barry Silver)

Where do we go from here? Civil society after the 2016 Election

I took a few days to think about and gather myself, asking, what comes next? What happens now? A few things, naturally. But one of the things I took away from a conversation this morning that is helping me re-center as a researcher and activist are these two questions:

  1. What are my values when I think about the society I want to build and live in?

  2. As I am now and what I can become, what role can I play in creating that society?

Maybe what frightens me most is how clearly this election went way off the rails in terms of any sort of clear discussion about values. Do we want to build an equal society? Do we want to distribute resources such that everyone can compete on an equal playing field? Do we want to grow at any cost (because maybe there are still people who believe trickle down economics work… it’s doesn’t). I want to start here, as I reaffirmed some of my values this morning at Trinity Wall Street.

Today's prayers at Trinity Wall Street
Today’s prayers at Trinity Wall Street

I think every concrete solution requires some compromises, but what are the truths we want to fight for and focus on as we rebuild our communities. I am not sure I could tell you where Trump or anyone on his team derive their values. I pray that this regime is not as dangerous as the troop of mercenaries (meaning, without a guiding northern light of a philosophy or set of values) that they seem to be. I hope we can push this government or at least the civilian communities in political life to be more explicit in restating and clarifying our values.

I has an important conversation this afternoon where we asked the question: Do we design a government for who we are now or who we could be? What if government was designed with space to grow into what we strive to become? What if there was an ideal (or, more realistically, a set of ideals) and we created space for that growth, reflection, and critique of ourselves? What would that society look like, and what would the practice be like on the individual and community levels.

I love the stories where appealing to people privately and engaging with them can help bring teaching moments and shared values to the surface. Deep Canvassing, an effort by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and SAVE in Florida where volunteers knock on doors and have 10 minute conversations about LGBT and trans rights with voters who rejected measures to protect these communities WORKED. It changed minds in ways that perhaps blanket bans on certain behaviors and speech could not. But it was here, in civil society, that community was build and maintained a new social order. They appealed to what people could be, instead of where they were at that time, frozen as an identity.

An activist I admire argues that the best way to participate politically is to show up with your skill set and offer to help. What can you do to push the conversation and effort further, because not everyone should show up and community organize. Movements need fundraisers to support the community, they need a web presence and a good designer to help reach new audiences. They need writers to record their message and history. There are many ways to participate.

Now more than ever, I am reminded that civil society is part of the political conversation as much as government is, and there are so many ways to participate. We created salons 4 years ago to push our conversations about feminism and equal rights beyond our classrooms and create a place for people to ask hard questions and learn about morality, how to negotiate, friendships, and other things that we sometimes suffer through on our own. Creating community is political, we are organizing, and it is necessary. We are stronger and better equipped for debate and building new ideas when we are working together. Perhaps it is most toxic to the system when we decide not to participate or continue learning at all. And these conversations in our community can take many forms… maybe even just visions of what the future could look like for our communities, or meeting new people in your neighborhood and city, attending local events by artists or religious institutions or universities, etc.

Beyond that, I think I can contribute as a researcher, offering ideas and studies where communities have trouble competing with well-funded think tanks. Too many histories fall off the charts because they aren’t recorded in the detail they deserve, their impact goes unmeasured, unnoticed. I want to be part of fixing this problem too. But I think I need to spend a little more time thinking through the vision for my next few years as an activist and (everything else that I am).

That’s where I am for today.

(Burrowing Owls Header, Image credit to Shell Game on Flickr, Cape Coral, FL; 17 Feb 2012)

Why it’s hard to record beautiful, hidden moments in labor organizing

Recording history as it happens is much more complicated than it seems. Victories are often celebrated privately and hope grows from these shared experiences with other organizers. I wonder now, how and why are these stories about successful labor organizer harder to find?

The voices of workers provide important feedback on the type of community we want to live in and the type of economy we can sustain together. When it is omitted or skimmed over, we lose a crucial piece of how economies are negotiated and built together. Most importantly,  there is a lot of creativity that goes into successful campaigns for change. Especially when the side arguing to “stay the same” can play to the same “fears of loss” factors that are so powerful.

I appreciate the creativity that goes into successful labor negotiations and the complexity, what it takes to get to the negotiation table and win important victories for workers. But the power dynamics of the work place and the economy makes recording stories from our workers and our organizers challenging. Sometimes part of the negotiation is keeping information, and how things play out, a secret.

While I was researching leads for a story, I ran into a case where the story was so important and inspiring… but the organizer needed to remain in the shadows to organize successfully. I was caught in a tension of wanting to celebrate this story that made me more optimistic about the future of labor… but it’s success depended on keeping private, between negotiating parties.

It made me stop to think about the role journalism plays in recording history, but also the complex partnerships and conditions that have to form to make long term change possible.

Labor is an important part of our community and efforts to silence workers and organizers limit our ability to have honest political discussions. If the only people with a voice are the CEOs and stakeholders, we have a very weird and unrealistic image of what it means to work in the company or the current workforce. And long term… creating a working experience that is only pleasant for the C-suite is not sustainable for the fabric of our communities.

Organizers like Saul Alinsky and Dolores Huerta have shaped how we think about organizing people, from political campaigns to voter turn out, workers strikes, negotiation in many different settings, research methods and so much more. Their creativity and strength lead them through some seemingly impossible battles to come out on top. It also gave me hope that “social structures” do change, we can negotiate. That violence and money as two currencies for dictating the rules are not the only options.

As a student, I learned so much from groups like Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) in New Haven, which is an amazing organization that supports undocumented workers and protects them when their wages are withheld, they suffer sexual harassment in their work places, and they are not protected by the full extent of their rights as guaranteed by the labor laws of Connecticut regardless of their immigration status.

In the last few years, I am also so excited about the work happening through Palak Shah at National Domestic Workers’ Alliance who is thinking about different ways to protect and negotiate for workers rights. The Worker’s Lab is another group working to improve working conditions through negotiations between workers and their employers. Carmen Rojas, from the Worker’s Lab, gave a talk at Personal Democracy Forum last year about some of the work place conditions improved by direct negotiation.

I spent time talking to other students who later became Union Organizers themselves. Some publicly, and others in a system where organizers work covertly, organizing from within the workforce. Both of these methods are important and offer different methods for negotiating work place conditions.

I, naively, wanted to celebrate both methods for organizing, hoping we could use public discussions to support workers and organizers, and maybe inspire a new generation of organizers who see there are people fighting for better. But I also needed to acknowledge that the organizers who are not public in their efforts are private because the secrecy is a necessary condition for their work.

While I want to preserve their present efforts in history to other students can read about it now and later, to add this layer of complexity and creativity to our labor history, but I cannot do so without compromising their work.

The power dynamic of these work places (typically hotels and other service sector businesses where workers are expected to be invisible or close to it) is that the leadership is set on keeping workers disorganized and afraid. The organizer preserves an alternative and devotes time and energy to helping support internal efforts among workers to organize for their negotiation. The organizer is not meant to be a public leader, the silence is also about being part of the team and not calling more attention to themselves than to the negotiation.

As I can relate from my more recent jobs, negotiation is a sensitive and often quiet process. Victories are often private moments, and failure requires quiet moments of recovery.

I frequently wonder if this covert organizing if the future of labor organizing. In an era where Unions have lost some of the favor they once had, my interest in labor issues usually ends up with the typical derogatory “Socialist” comment (because we have a nasty history here of black listing “communists” and anyone who is sympathetic to workers with a label), and where inequality is seems to only be increasing… Is the best way to protect workers completely off-record, hidden, and perhaps forgotten with time?

I wonder, too, about the role of journalists here. If they play an important role in recording history as it happens, are there sections of history we are meant to celebrate more privately and then lose to time? Or does this story sit in a sort of escrow until enough time has passed to record it, before it’s lost?

I am left with my questions to explore and waiting for ways to support organizers, as they need it.

The Yale Student Protests: Closer to Primary Sources In Chronological Order

Because it’s worth it to go back to the primary sources, not just the (sometimes poorly researched) editorials.

I started this reading list for myself, and a handful of friends, who were trying to learn as much as possible about the different perspectives presented during these protests.

Disclaimer: I am not here to offer my opinions, but to provide the audience with a wider range of sources that you may see in editorials. I do, however, offer some context in introducing each piece. I am disappointed with the cherry picking of research in a lot of the coverage I’ve seen so far. This is my attempt to offer more background and evidence to those who want to dig deeper than editorials.

BACKGROUND:

This was the email that students receive every year from the IAC regarding their approach to Halloween costumes. It encourages students to think critically and take responsibility for their halloween costumes.

This is the email about Halloween by Erika Christakis that sparked some of the initial conversations on campus about the role of the university in “policing halloween costumes,” protecting “freedom of speech” and several other issues that turned into heated discussions in several corners of campus. I suggest reading the full copy, rather than the quotes pulled out of context for several publications online.

The order of events in the first week of protests, as presented by a current student.

The University offered it’s first response to two separate incidents. First, the Christakis Halloween Costume Discussion and second, the “white girls only” party complaint against SAE:

This is the statement issued by the President of Yale Peter Salovey regarding their commitment to a “better Yale,” sent to students on November 6, 2015.

This was the statement sent by Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway on November 6, 2015.

When you read the list of demands presented by students in DOWN and at the march to President Salovey’s house, please note that their concerns extend far beyond these two initial incidents. The demands address larger structural problems.

The Students Organized:

During the early days of the media attention on campus, I kept asking current students for a better sense of what was going on. I was presented with this article describing the demands from the community at DOWN magazine (a Yale student publication) as it stands on November 11, 2015. Down is the publication that was forwarded by way by several different student groups when I inquired about the best places to find reliable coverage. This publication has been working to gather student opinions and stories about their experiences at Yale and their reasons for challenging the Christakis’s emails and structural inequality at Yale.

A new week of events kicks off…

More than 1000 students gathered on campus to support the student organizers and their peers on November 10, 2015.

This was the poster circulating on Yale’s campus about the event. I found this copy of the image on the Facebook event page for this event.

The next day, students filled Battell Chapel for Teach-Ins, which has space for 1,100 people, and ended up turning away people at the door because even the aisles were packed. This particular Teach-In was called “A Moment of Crisis: Race at Yale Teach-In” and was intended to offer students from all different backgrounds perspective and history on the student protests taking place on campus. President Salovey and Yale College Dean Holloway both attended the event.

Finally, the students marched to President Salovey’s house on November 12, 2015 and presented their list of demands at 11:50pm. This is the final list of their demands, as presented that evening.

In response to the viral video and other media that has been used to infantilize the protestors:

First and foremost, this is what the protest at Yale looked like. Language on their banners read: We are Loved. We are here to stay. The corresponding response on my newsfeed for days from other Yale Alumni was confirmation: You are Loved. We support you.

This is not the image of hostility and aggression portrayed by many of the articles claiming to understand the tone of the student protests. A video clip of a student screaming at Professor Christakis went viral and, unfortunately, was used to set the tone for so many of the articles that came out covering the events on campus.

A Resolution is reached:

Updated on November 17: President Salovey addressed Yale and the alumni network with his response. He is increasing funding to all four cultural houses, improving training to talk about diversity for students and Yale’s staff (professors and administrators), improving financial aid for low income students, providing mental health providers through the cultural houses (to provide mental health professionals versed in more of the background their students are coming from), and investing further resources into programs like ethnicity, race and migration that offer academic opportunities outside the traditional “Canon.”

Because people have been asking, as of November 18, 2015, the University has confirmed its support for Master Christakis in his appointment to Silliman College.

Alumni offered their perspectives throughout the last few weeks:

One alum offered some perspective through this piece: “The Yale Student Protests Are Campus PC Wars At Their Best.”

This is another piece on the broader context of the protests by an alum. It is particularly powerful and going viral through the Yale alumni network that appears regularly in my facebook newsfeed (11/11/2015). The Yale Daily News also followed up with several members of the alumni to gather and present their reactions.

Also available on my Medium page.

What’s Going On At Yale? A Reading List.

What you should see: First and foremost, this is what the protest at Yale looked like. Language on their banners read: We are Loved. We are here to stay.

This is not the image of hostility and aggression portrayed by most of the media. One video clip of a student screaming at Professor Christakis went viral and, unfortunately, was used to set the tone for so many of the articles that came out covering the events on campus.

Updated on November 17: President Salovey addressed Yale and the alumni network with his response. He is increasing funding to all four cultural houses, improving training to talk about diversity for students and Yale’s staff (professors and administrators), improving financial aid for low income students, providing mental health providers through the cultural houses (to provide mental health professionals versed in more of the background their students are coming from), and investing further resources into programs like ethnicity, race and migration that offer academic opportunities outside the traditional “Canon.

The students marched to President Salovey’s house on November 12, 2015 and presented their list of demands at 11:50pm. This is the final list of their demands, as presented that evening.

BACKGROUND:

This was the email that students receive every year from the IAC regarding their approach to Halloween costumes.

This is the email about Halloween by Erika Christakis that sparked some of the initial conversations about communities on campus. I suggest reading the full copy, rather than the quotes pulled out of context for several publications online. As of November 18, 2015, the University has confirmed its support for Master Christakis in his appointment to Silliman College.

I kept asking students for a better sense of what was going on and was presented with this list of demands from the community at DOWN magazine (a Yale student publication) as it stands on November 11, 2015.

The order of events in the last week, as presented by a student.

This is the statement issued by the President of Yale Peter Salovey regarding their commitment to a “better Yale,” sent to students on November 6, 2015.

This was the statement sent by Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway on November 6, 2015.

This is another piece on the broader context of the protests by an alum. It is particularly powerful and going viral through the Yale alumni network that appears regularly in my facebook newsfeed (11/11/2015). The Yale Daily News also followed up with several members of the alumni to gather and present their reactions.

I keep hearing from students still on campus that they are afraid and that the organizers face regular threats. That campus no longer feels safe. Today (11/11/2015) the Yale Daily News published a story about racist signs that appeared on campus… apparently from non-students. It doesn’t describe the atmosphere in the same ways that students have described it to me, but we need to keep paying attention.

Maybe the hardest part is reading the headlines every morning. Some are reflective of what the students are saying and asking for… others are clickbait or trying to place the story in a quick context for what else is going on in the US around race relations. This means… the headlines are clunky at best.

For example, this Slate headline, “The Yale Student Protests Are Campus PC Wars At Their Best” is terrible and sounds like it’s going to be a frustrating read, but ends up giving some good perspective.

The Atlantic is being inconsistent (and sometimes needs to do better research before it writes about subjects outside of context). For example, we started with this from them: This article published Monday claims this is all a meltdown about a single email. They followed up with this article on Tuesday to add more context and adding that it was less about the specific email and more about the long overdue conversations about race, class and privilege that were missing on campus.

Those that read only the articles about the isolated email incident have taken to calling Yale students “children” and asking “where the adults are.” Several Yale alumni have published pieces about their own experiences at Yale and their concerns with speakers invited to campus, but their own “restraint” in interacting with these speakers… which again, doesn’t bring the larger context of race and class etc. on campus.

The authors from these particular articles need to read this older piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates and think about the experiences he describes so well here.

I will continue adding to this as I find decent sources.

Balancing Human and Activist

I have many thoughts about what is happening at Yale this week and how alumni can be supportive of students and the community… but I want to start with this Talk.

Roxane Gay’s message applies to all sorts of activism. Without space to be human, make mistakes, edit, fumble, and grow… how do we participate?

I also remember struggling with this so much when I was a student & activist in college. The balance… sometimes so difficult. Especially when it came to arguing for a cause and building out a community.