I haven’t posted for a while; someone I love has been desperately ill during the same time that the country has been coming apart amidst the tragedies of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and revelations of CIA torture. So many eloquent blogs and newspaper essays have commented on these subjects that I didn’t feel a need to add my voice at this time.
However, I had the privilege recently of interviewing three young African-Americans who live locally about this country’s ongoing turbulence in the wake of the failure of grand juries to indict policemen. From my white privilege background, I felt very humbled that they would trust me with their stories.
Their stories are for a newspaper article, so I cannot just repeat the article here. I do want to talk about the last question I asked them, though, which was “Where is the hope for you in all this?”
One young man, 25, had a bleak view. “I want to hope,” he said, “but I don’t believe” things will change without some kind of purge. He echoed the prophecy of John Brown as he gave his vision of much larger protests and loss of life of innocents and policemen before white people wake up to the reality of life in this country for people of color.
At the age of 12, this young man watched as his 18-year-old beloved brother was shot in the head by a policeman who believed he had drugs on him. Obviously, the experience traumatized him, and he still wavers between being a grown-up who demands respect and that 12-year-old who is in a lot of pain, but whistles in the dark.
Another young man, a 21-year-old who moved to this country from Uganda, said that the hope for him is that the US government will create a new federal department or system that will oversee police shootings of unarmed people and follow stipulated guidelines for what happens next rather than leaving that to local, and possibly biased, governments.
One of the sources of hope for me is in organizations that “think globally, act locally”; Western Massachusetts is privileged to have one such organization doing great work here. Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) is the brainchild of Gwendolyn Hampton Van Sant. Coming from a background as a Spanish teacher, counselor, religious education teacher, and ASL interpreter, Gwendolyn first came to the area to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
“We try to give people more tools to transform culture,” she said. ”We pull out the strengths in communities and overlay them with resilience. If you want cultural change, you need to bring out the positive.”
Much of the work that BRIDGE does is with elementary schools, training both teachers and students. In an area with a high population of children of color and low population of teachers of color, white teachers need to learn first to recognize where kids are struggling and how to build up their strengths. They need to be sensitive to generational poverty in the neighborhoods where they teach and be aware of ways in which they might be exacerbating problems by making remarks that they think are well-intentioned, but in fact, humiliate the child.
How does one teach resilience? I wondered. Gwendolyn defines resilience as the ability to come through adversity with positive results. I recalled Isabella Wilkerson writing in her magnificent book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, that the children of African-Americans who migrated to the North had a much more difficult time making their way in the world than their parents had. This is despite the fact that their parents were mostly the children of slaves and had worked as sharecroppers (little better than slaves); some had even been targeted by lynching mobs.
The children of these people, not having experienced the depredations of living in the South during Jim Crow, expected the North to grant them all the freedoms they sought and desired. It wasn’t necessarily so, especially in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, and especially in the areas of housing and employment, the two most important areas of anyone’s life. Many did not have the resilience to work through the challenges and so dropped out of school and drifted into gangs.
That was in the 1920s and 1930s, but even now there is an identified syndrome called school to jail pipeline, through which some children of color are given up on before they can learn their strengths and find a path to the future. This is where BRIDGE comes in.
Parents’ forums, English language summer school, diversity training for white people, addressing economics and racism all go into the effort of interrupting patterns of systemic racism. Addressing gender identity issues is also part of BRIDGE’s mandate to create “leverage for equity,” as Gwendolyn put it.
BRIDGE has held two public dialogues on racism. The first attracted 200 people, the second 500. As BRIDGE gains in reputation, more people of all ethnic backgrounds, colors, income levels and sexual orientation are coming together to, as Stokely Carmichael first said, be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
How can white people best be part of the solution? I asked Gwendolyn. The answer she gave: through educating ourselves so that we can use our white privilege to create change.
You can read much more about all that BRIDGE does at http://www.multiculturalbridge.org.
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A Facebook post went viral last week. It was from a young woman who lives in New York who had been angry about the problem of trying to get around the city amidst the protests that blocked highways and streets. Then she realized that she needed to be one of the people out on the street. As she watched other cars struggling to have a path cleared for them, the thought came to her that when society clears a path for justice for all citizens, then everyone will be able to get through.
I love this thought: clearing a path for justice. Yes, let us be part of that.