Tagged with " philanthropy"

Love > Fear

I’m going to summer camp this year. Not as a parent or a teacher, but as a student at the Leadership Institute run by National People’s Action. This opportunity is dearly bought with the love and financial votes of confidence of many friends, as well as the perseverance of the Darling Husband, who’ll get his share of single parenting back from all those cons he’s attended for work over the years. And I’m determined to use this camp’s resources to level up my skills and be a stronger leader for the causes I feel strongly about. I know it’s going to be a challenging, agitating, soul-searching experience–I’m ready for that.

But today, I was faced with a view of my activism that I’d never, ever envisioned. A beloved friend suggested that I might be on the path toward the kind of activism that harms and terrorizes other people. And I found myself replaying all the marches, rallies, phone calls, planning meetings, training sessions, and conversations I’ve had. I searched them from the outside looking in, scanning for visions of myself as frightening, threatening, angry, or intimidating. And, of course, my vivid visual imagination got straight to work manufacturing reflections of past scenes or shadows of future selves in which I’m furious and self-righteous, intolerant of other viewpoints, but blind to the faults in my own.

But those pictures aren’t real, and the rest of my memories yield images I can’t associate with terror. I speak clearly and fearlessly, yet with respect, to anyone who’ll listen. I work hard, but I goof off too and distract my friends for a few laughs in brief downtimes. I sing, I clap, I chant, I dance. I’ve cried with both joy and grief in the halls of power and in the streets.

I don’t know how these things are scary.

I do have the clarity to see that parts of my activism might provoke a negative response in some people. I may appear to have a rigid sense of what’s right and little tolerance for other positions. My voice can be strident when I try to make it heard over those who try to drown it out. I’m not a small person, and when I raise a fist of power or link arms in solidarity with others, I probably look unmovable. I talk a lot about the actions I’m taking, because they take up a big part of my life. I retweet too much.

It IS radical, what I do. Maybe I should get used to that statement: I am a radical. I believe in radical things, like the worth and dignity of every single person on this planet, and the power of a single person’s action joined with others. I do radical things, like give my time and energy and voice to causes that do not directly benefit me at all, just because they seem worthwhile and I recognize the power that comes with my privilege. I try to offer radical acceptance to every person I meet, by acknowledging that every life is a journey, and we’re not all at the same place on the path at the same time–judging or criticizing another person for being where they are on their path accomplishes nothing.

The internal conflicts I weather as I work through the evolution of my beliefs and the consequences of my actions aren’t visible to most people, so I’m sure I seem like another cardboard cut-out liberal rabble-rouser. I don’t talk with everyone about why some causes get my attention and others don’t. Part of that is embarrassment at the inexplicable, emotional reasons for some of those decisions. I have internal boundaries among the issues and tactics of activism that don’t always come from a sensible place.

But I hope my primary motivations are clear as day: I want everyone to feel the same love and enjoy the same rights I do. I love learning and free will and self-determination, and I believe everyone deserves equal access to them. Because that’s what moves me, I’m categorically opposed to tactics designed to frighten or deprive anyone of something that’s rightfully theirs.

And here’s where I’ll make the only qualification in this whole screed: disproportionate political or financial power is not a right. Those are things you earn, and if you use them to take away the rights and freedoms of others, then you have to be ready for the same people who gave them to demand them back. If you’re the one in power, the idea of losing that position might be frightening. It shouldn’t be, because power over others isn’t a right, but nobody likes to lose control. I can empathize; I’m a control freak too.

But one of the founding principles of democracy and human rights is the power of a group of people to rise up peacefully, speak their piece, and create change in society. Sometimes, the language of this right is misappropriated by people who want to use that power to take away others’ rights (often, that exact same right they’re exercising). But the truly great moments in history largely correlate to times when individuals have stood up for their rights in the face of overwhelming disparity in power and force.

It takes guts and advice and practice and support to do that and not falter. It takes the sight of other people to the left and right of you, whether it’s in a parade or a phone center cubicle or a line of jail cells. That’s who I want to be for others who are fighting for a better world. That’s what I want to be trained to do. And if my faith and conviction in the possibility of change toward greater freedom makes  someone feel afraid of me or bad about themselves, all I can do is say that I love them and where they are in their journey. I’m just trying to be my whole, powerful self and make room for others to do the same.

Nov 28, 2012 - Social Studies    14 Comments

Pass the Bucket

I cringe as soon as I hear the bell ringing in front of the grocery store. My kids are primed to be generous, and immediately pester me for pocket change to put in the red bucket. I tell them “no” quietly and, to head off the inevitable “why” that follows, say, “They don’t believe they have to help everyone who comes to them in need, and I don’t want to support that.” I fast-walk the boys into the store and give the bellringer a tight smile.

This routine defies every philanthropic fiber in my being. We take things to Goodwill, we buy poppies from veterans, we buy Girl Scout cookies (okay, that one’s got side benefits). We support public radio and television, we give to our church, we buy ridiculous things from school fundraisers. Lupus, leukemia, lymphoma, lumbago–we give to them all. We collect pennies in UNICEF and Guest At Your Table boxes, which fall apart under the weight of the change every time.

But I will not give one copper penny to the Salvation Army.

SA hits many criteria that appeal to folks who want to do good. They work on first-order needs–feed the starving, shelter the homeless, clothe the poor–often in emergency situations. Especially at the holidays, when so many appeals come from charitable organizations, it can be difficult to prioritize causes, and SA makes it easy: give money here, help people in need. They even use a low-pressure ask, simply ringing a bell, rather than shaking a coffee can in people’s faces.

But SA’s help is given conditionally. If you want a meal, a cot, a coat, you must attend Christian worship. These aren’t gentle ecumenical services, either. You will be told you are full of sin, that your current problems have roots in your inadequate acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior, that repentance and sacrifice are needed, and that only the saving power of the Christian God can take away your temporal suffering. There is fire and there is brimstone. There is even heresy, depending on your Christian theology–SA preaches “Lordship Salvation” which requires constant human effort for salvation.

And all that assumes that they’ve let you in the doors in the first place. SA’s track record for turning away gay and lesbian people in need is well documented, even those in committed partnerships. A British chapter even turned away a naked, injured rape victim because they “only serve men” at their location, despite the organization’s stated policy to make counseling and emergency assistance available to crime victims.

If that doesn’t disturb you enough to pass the pail, consider what happens to some donations. SA has used charitable gifts to support anti-gay legislation in America and abroad. Other SA officials have seen fit to throw away brand-new, donated, Harry Potter toys and books, because they didn’t want to be complicit in turning recipients toward Satan. And still others have simply helped themselves to the largesse they collect for others. We don’t even have a clear idea how much money SA takes in, or how it moves around within the organization, because for most of their operating history, they’ve hidden behind the IRS disclosure shield for churches.

I’ll admit that a big part of my personal problem with this organization comes from our differing views on the definition of “salvation” and how you get there. Militant religion has made me queasy since the first time I understood the words of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Never forget that SA stands for Salvation Army, not Salvation Association or Salvation Achievers.

And before their symbol was this: 

it was this: 

I don’t believe anyone needs to be “saved,” and I don’t think scaring and shaming them would do it, even if they did. I believe that good acts are their own reward, and that there should never be a cost for help, especially not one that amounts to emotional extortion in a person’s most powerless moments.

If you really want to do good–and another thing I believe is that everyone really does want to do good–there are so many places that need you. If you feel like freezing your butt off, don’t just stand there ringing a bell–take meals to the homeless and invite them into life-saving shelters on the coldest of nights. If you have a strange attraction to American coinage, collect it for your local food shelf so families can enjoy a special holiday meal. If you want to spread the message of your holy days, help your church or temple with its social justice projects. And if you just don’t know where to start, look right around you. Your neighbors, your friends, your family, you all know someone who’s hurting: a person facing a holiday alone, or hungry, or scared, or without the tools or means to give the children in their lives the wonder and joy so many of us associate with this time of year.

It doesn’t take an army to save people. We can save each other, with our own hands and hearts and wide open eyes.


May 31, 2012 - Social Studies    15 Comments

Walking the Talk

I’ve been trying to string these observations together for three days now, and failing utterly to find a single narrative thread. But I really feel the need to get these ideas out there. So, instead of a coherent blog post, you get a bunch of random thoughts about the complexities of race relations. My apologies.


Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and me, May 2012

I’m thinking a lot about race these days. Part of that is deliberate. I took part in a study group about the racial history of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, at church, in anticipation of a weekend visit by the foremost historian of the African American UU experience, Mark Morrison-Reed. We read his book, Darkening the Doorways, and discussed everything from white privilege, to assumptions about what black visitors to our church would find welcoming, to outreach efforts to walk the talk on multicultural engagement.

The accompanying workshop, and the extended conversation for the group of us, was difficult and painful, but soul work really should be. The first principle of our faith is that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we’ve been unsuccessful more often than successful at truly embracing real diversity in our church homes. We’re so much more comfortable going into communities of color for a day of service–us doing things for them, not with them–then returning to our monochromatic congregations on Sunday with the glow of righteousness.

The main conclusion we came to that day, with Mark’s help, is that communities of color are used to people coming and going. What they’re not used to is people staying. Volunteers paint buildings and plant gardens. They don’t come back to touch-up or weed. It’s the same with political work. Don’t just show up for the march–come back for coffee, stay for dinner. Don’t just make speeches–ask what they want, and listen as long as they want to talk.


I’m not colorblind. My stepdad says he is, with ridiculous statements like, “I don’t see race” and “There’s no such thing as black and white–we’re all cocoa, vanilla, cream tea, cinnamon.”  It sounds delicious, but it’s hard for me to reconcile this kind of obliviousness with his history as a young white man who stood up for civil rights in the ’60s. He even attended Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. To me, this is blindness, not color blindness, and it diminishes the real struggle people of color have had and continue to have in America. Is this a relic of that generation of liberal speech on race? Did it sound as insensitive in the past as it does now?


I see race because I see patterns. As a kid, I was curious about things like melanin, epicanthic folds, and naso-labial shapes. But I was far more fascinated by the differences than worried about them. I noticed that people of different ethnicities smelled differently, and I wanted to taste the food I scented on their clothing and in their hair. I collected dolls dressed in the native costumes of different nations. I spent hours in a Chicago-area children’s museum, acting out family life from Fiddler on the Roof in the kid-sized Jewish home, and making tortillas and touching all the weavings in the Mexican home. And my mom tells me that, around the age of 2 and 3, I would babble incessantly in some weird language, then sigh in exasperation when she told me to stop talking nonsense. “*Mo-om*, it’s not nonsense,” she says I said, “I’m speaking French.” To this day, she wishes she’d known someone who spoke French, to find out if I actually was.


I worked in a record store at the last year of my undergrad work, in Lawrence, Kansas. I loved my job, but I’d watch the kids who browsed a little too long in the Rap/R&B section. The white boys were so stupidly obvious, all I had to do was walk up to them and ask them how I could help to get them to mumble nervously and quickly leave the store, their shoplifting plans foiled. When it was young men of color, I’d watch them, then deliberately turn away, telling myself it wasn’t fair to profile them thus. After they left, I’d do a quick check of the section, and when I found neatly razorbladed magnetic tags or plastic wrappers stuffed into the corners of the racks, I was furious and hurt. I hated that they reinforced the negative stereotypes, justified my profiling, and made me feel racist and ashamed.


I just read a book by John L. Jackson, Jr. called Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, in which he makes a compelling case that, in the wake of the advances at exterminating de jure (in the law) and de facto (in reality) racism, all the remaining ambivalence gets internalized into what he calls de cardio (in the heart) racism, which isn’t even always conscious, and will be much harder to stamp out. Jackson posits that, if people on both sides of the color line can’t trust people to speak the truth about race, they come to mistrust everything they say about race, leading to deep racial paranoia.


The book taught me about the propensity to believe in vast conspiracies, based on this fundamental mistrust, and the books and music who advance these theories in the black community. I felt about a dozen questions and observations snap into place, finally in context, with each chapter. And his theory confirms my suspicions about the direction public attitudes about LGBT folks are headed, as it becomes increasingly less acceptable to openly discriminate. In this way, among so many others, we have to acknowledge that civil rights are civil rights are civil rights.


Few things make me as frustrated or embarrassed as seeing white people co-opting pieces of other cultures as their own. Purely Euro-American people drumming in sweat lodge retreats at expensive resorts. Suburban soccer moms who say they understand Latinos because they’re sending their kids to a Spanish-immersion private school. Kids putting on the swagger and language of inner city culture, without having to suffer any of the doubt and fear that comes with walking through gated communities while black.

A few years ago, I heard someone ask, “Why is cocaine so addictive and damaging, when South Americans chew coca leaves for years and never suffer ill health?” The answer is simple. Because when you take something out of context–extract, distill, purify–you may amplify the parts you want, but you lose hundreds of organic compounds that balance and mitigate the downsides in ways we don’t even fully understand.

Culture works the same way. When you sample ideas and practices out of context, you may feel enlightened and energized by your new, hip, exclusive experience, but you’re missing the point, and denigrating a culture that’s richer than you even know. Admire Native American spirituality? Learn about rez life. Like to sing African American spirituals? Learn about the black experience of Christianity and liberation theology. Do the work, and learn the context.


I’m not trying to “put on” blackness, with all these inquiries into race lately. I want to understand a culture that is, in so many ways, hidden in plain sight. I want to understand how people of color experience the same things I experience, each of us through our different lenses. Those lenses are ground by things like dinner table conversations, schoolyard lessons, the looks you get (or feel) walking down the street, and how it feels to stand on thresholds real and metaphoric.

I’ve experienced the world through the lens of white privilege; I know that deep in my bones. I don’t feel guilt, but I do feel regret. I’ve also experienced the world through the lenses of being female, being autistic, being liberal, being curious. I want to hear the voices, and I have a deep desire to reach across that divide, as much as I would be welcomed, to speak to and embrace the common humanity of us all. I’m not satisfied with the boundaries others tell me are “safe.”


I am happiest when my world is diverse. And I want my boys to grow up thinking that friends come in every shape, gender, color, physical ability, and personality. When they were younger, I took them to the parks where the immigrant families came for day trips, up from Chicago. A lot of the locals in our lily-white resort town told us to avoid them on weekends, but I wanted my sons to smell different cooking, hear different languages, and play with every kind of kid. So many families welcomed my wild, gregarious sons, and seemed delighted with the mingled laughter and fun of their children and mine.

When they ran over to ask if they could play with a new friend, I asked them to point out at least one of the kids’ parents. They would point vaguely, eager to return to the game, and say, “His dad is the one in the green shirt” or “His mom has long hair.” I would follow their little pointing finger, and as often than not, the man in the green shirt was also black, or the woman with long hair was dressed in a sari. But those things didn’t register as different enough to remark upon, and skin color was irrelevant, next to the possibility of a new playmate.

Am I wrong to be proud of that? I don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. But teaching values to kids is such a fraught proposition, and the way they treat others–especially perfect strangers–is one of the real litmus tests for whether your lessons are sinking in. They’re a big part of why I want to expand my circle of friends and contacts to include more people of color. The indifference to difference doesn’t last forever. It’s time for me to put my body and heart where my values are, for them to see.


Mar 31, 2012 - Social Studies    No Comments

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Part II

Last week, I started a new feature on the blog called Friday Night Lists, with the first of three lists of people I’d love to sit down with, around a dinner table, and talk the night away. Last week, I gave my picks from the pool of living participants. This week, I’d like to introduce you to my guest list drawn from all of history. Like last week, I’ll give a brief blurb about why I’ve picked each person, and I’ll provide a link, in case you’d like to learn more about the ones I’m introducing you to/reminding you of.

As with all my lists, I’ll inevitably forget someone–much footstomping and cursing will follow. So please share your picks, to help remind me in case my sons ever do manage to build a TARDIS out of a refrigerator box.


  • Christine de Pizan: medieval author; philosopher. Her clever allegory City of Women books make the case for a feminist perspective on Christianity, without proposing that women’s only place in the world was as an empty vessel for children or the Holy Spirit.
  • Constance de Markievicz: politician; rebel; founder of the Fianna Eireann. She dressed like a man, sat at the table with the intellectuals who planned the 1916 Easter Rebellion, and trained the generation of boys and girls who would see through the dream of an Irish Free State.
  • Edward R. Murrow: journalist. Through the new medium of radio, Murrow brought the early days of World War II into American homes, fearlessly reporting from London throughout the Blitz, and from many other hazardous locations. As if that weren’t brave enough, he stood up to the McCarthy witch hunts in the name of free speech and accurate reporting.
  • Franklin Delano & Eleanor Roosevelt: four-term president of the United States; First Lady & activist. He engineered the New Deal and the American social safety net, then gave the nation a moral compass to get through World War II. She was a smart, welcoming First Lady, and an inspiring advocate for peace when she founded the United Nations. They weren’t perfect, but my admiration is boundless.
  • Hatshepsut: king of Ancient Egypt. She stands out as a fearless female leader in the midst of millenia of patriarchal influence. She wasn’t satisfied with the qualified, subordinate title of “queen;” she dressed and ruled like the great kings of the Nile.
  • Jim Henson: puppeteer; director; artist. Who could possibly envision everything from Sesame Street to the Skeksis, and a million sights in between? His respect for children, smart and wacky sense of humor, and gift for finding the humanity in every sock and stick was half of what defined my idea of imagination as a child.
  • John Lennon: singer/songwriter; artist; activist. Half of the greatest songwriting team of all time, he lived a second act that spread the word of love and peace, before ending far too soon.
  • Katharine Hepburn: actress; author. She was brainy, cool, elegant, funny, and smart-mouthed. I watched everything of hers I could find as a kid, much of it on the big screen, from “Kitty Foyle” to “The Philadelphia Story” to “The African Queen.” She brought immeasurable class and fearless grit to every aspect of her life. I even wear my long hair in a bun, in hopes that someday, it’ll just stay like that, just like hers.
  • Margaret Sanger: nurse; midwife; sex educator; founder of Planned Parenthood. She knew that a woman’s power over her reproduction was even more important for her ultimate health, wealth, and upward mobility than suffrage. As you wonder how birth control is even a topic for debate in 2012, spare a moment for dear Margaret and the sheer will and courage it took to fight that fight in public 100 years ago.
  • Oscar Wilde: author. He skips from whimsy to horror to cutting satire so fast, it gives a reader or theatergoer whiplash. He was persecuted as a political pawn for whom he loved, and he bore the humiliation and suffering with honesty and dignity, when his opponents had none.
  • Richard Holbrooke: diplomat. It pains me that he’s not on the list of Living Guests. His knowledge of such difficult regions of the world is sorely needed, as is his skillful, sensitive hand at negotiations which ended the Bosnian conflict in peace.
  • Samuel Clemens: author. Witty, insightful, playful, and profound, Mark Twain remains my favorite author of all time, bar none. Every time I read his work, there’s a new revelation.
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel: author/illustrator. Dr. Seuss’ books shaped my childhood as much as did Jim Henson, with their psychedelic, whimsical characters and cleverly wrought language. We hardly noticed the messages of basic human rights, environmentalism, and peace, but they left their mark.
  • Thomas Jefferson: author, inventor, architect, third president of the United States. He had a completely unique view of the world, and it gave us a future we’re still unfolding. I want to compliment him on his beautiful home and garden, then grill him on his notions of “inalienable rights.”
Feb 25, 2012 - Psychology    5 Comments

Minnesota Nice

Things you should know about me

  • I love volunteering for good causes
  • I love making people feel good about themselves
  • I love trying new things
  • I love making people laugh
  • I also use humor to defuse tense situations
  • I need to feel useful
  • I try to be honest, tactful, and polite, even when they seem mutually exclusive
  • I frequently wear myself out doing things for others before I get around to taking care of myself
  • I have an anti-authoritarian, rebellious, “Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t?” streak a mile wide
  • I’m wild about democratic politics, but not interested in small group interpersonal politics, except in an abstract, anthropological way
  • I love when my enthusiasm for something makes others enthusiastic too
  • I somehow manage to have abysmal self-esteem and a sense of unflappable calm and competence in crises
  • I probably like making lists a little too much
  • I’m pretty riled up at the moment, so this is about as passive-aggressive as I get
  • I’m pretty sure the people I’m upset with don’t read this blog

Things I don’t really enjoy

  • Power politics in places you don’t expect them
  • People who hoard information to guarantee their continued importance
  • People who let someone else take fire as a leader, but continue to pull strings behind the scenes
  • Finding out important things about an institution that radically change your understanding and expectations of what’s possible
  • The belief that intellectuals can’t possibly know anything practical about the “real world”
  • The stance that it’s not worth even trying new things because there’s the chance that they’ll fail
  • Grown-ups who still rely on status cliques for a sense of importance
  • People who won’t blow you off to your face, but who basically stopped listening before you started talking
  • Being accused of selfish motives for taking on time-consuming, thankless volunteer work
  • Finding oneself nominated by the method of everyone else taking a step backward while you stood still
  • Being my own (and only) cheerleader
  • Feeling like a project that’s meant to be helpful and positive is now nothing but a drag on time, energy, and emotional reserves
  • Working on not being such a control freak, and then watching everything go directly to hell the minute I leave it alone
  • Being hamstrung on projects that are important to me because I don’t play politics
  • The why-am-I-even-trying-anymore kind of tired

Things I actually do enjoy

  • Kids wanting to hug me, high-five me, say hi to me, tell me a joke, or ask when I’m coming back to their class, every time I walk down a school hallway
  • When good, solid, simple plans work like they’re supposed to, defying others’ expectations of failure
  • Having another project that actually is working, and doing good, and is appreciated
  • People who feel like I’m approachable and non-judgmental, even when the group I represent leaves them feeling excluded from a secret society
  • Helping friends
  • Helping kids
  • Helping strangers
  • Helping anyone, anywhere, anytime I’m asked
  • My hair color, even if I’m “too old” to be doing weird stuff like this
  • A good old-fashioned bitch session
  • People who support me when I go out on a limb with good intentions
  • Participating in conversations that have no mysterious subtexts or power dynamics I don’t know about
  • Making my own social group where the misfits feel welcome and valued
  • A level playing field
  • Offering a graceful way out of the corner someone has painted themselves into (eventually)
  • The job-well-done kind of tired

A Thousand Little Things

This is Gwen.

I’ve been working for a while now, in all my copious spare time, on organizing a fundraiser to help some dear friends. Given how closely to the bone my family lives from time to time, it may seem like an odd choice for me to use my time to make money for someone else, but my efforts aren’t about the money. The money’s just the most immediate way to begin righting a wrong.

Elizabeth and Shreyas have two daughters. Nirali is two years old and completely adorable. And Gwen is eight, whip-smart with a smile as big as the world. Gwen is also autistic. Her family has had to pull her out of the public school where she’s been going since they moved to California because of its stubborn refusal to follow the Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines Gwen’s difficulties, goals, and the school’s obligations to help her function at her fullest capacity. IEPs are legal documents, and the school has broken the law time and time again by refusing to provide the support Gwen needs to learn and participate.

If her family just pulls Gwen from the school, with no follow-up, there will be no record of the egregious offenses the school district has committed. Another family with their own bright, high-functioning autistic child might run into the same obstinacy and intransigence, and never know that their experience is part of a pattern that goes back years.

The only way to change things in the future is to fight now. And fighting is expensive.

In return for donations to help Gwen’s family fund the legal fight and prove that a private school can do what the public school refuses, I’m putting together six months of new short fiction from a fantastic roster of writers. Every other Monday (with occasional “freebie” days at random), subscribers will get something new to read. Readers of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and generally offbeat stories will recognize some of the authors who’ve already committed their talents: Matt Forbeck, Kenneth Hite, Josh Robern, David Niall Wilson, Cam Banks, Steven Savile, and more. Still more authors are still stepping forward; I’m thrilled and humbled by everyone’s generosity. You can subscribe right here.

But I’m not just doing this for Gwen and her family, much as I adore them. I’m not doing this just because it’s the right thing to do, though it obviously is. I’m doing this out of gratitude for the thousand little things my sons’ school does for them, above and beyond Connor’s IEP requirements.

I’ve written before about the misunderstanding, the ignorance, and the physically and psychologically scarring bullying Connor received from both administration and classmates at the school where he attended kindergarten. His Asperger’s Syndrome was so obvious to trained observers that, when we switched him to a different school for first grade, we were called in for a meeting about his diagnosis before the first month of school was over.

Over the years, we’ve had meetings upon meetings around that packet of papers labeled “IEP.” They’re full of jargon, full of measurable annual goals, services and modifications, assistive technology considerations, and other daunting phraseology. But that jargon translates into real help that makes a real difference. It gives him permission to walk out of any situation that’s overwhelming him to the point that he feels a meltdown coming on. It gives him access to tools like fidgets and weighted vests that allow him to focus longer and be more at ease in loud, crowded situations. It justifies the time spent in social skills group and occupational therapy, when other kids are drilling on academics that Connor mastered a grade or two ago.

All those therapies and tricks and tools are incredibly helpful. But the things for which I get down on my knees in thanks, and that I wish for Gwen and every other amazing kid trying to cope in this noisy, gaudy, overwhelming world with their quirky superhuman senses, are the things that aren’t ever written into an IEP. They’re the points of human contact, of compassion from professionals whose hands are more than full with the everyday concerns of all the other “perfectly normal” kids.

It’s the way that, when Connor had a meltdown at school after a week of substitute teachers and his mom in the hospital, the principal offered him a hug, and just held him as he sobbed under the weight of emotions too big and complex for him to sort out alone.

It’s the way that the school social worker offered to use “special funds” to buy a pack of undershirts so Connor didn’t have to wear the pressure vest that helps him stay calm on the outside of his clothes, where it might be noticed and commented upon by his classmates.

It’s the way that they recognized that his need for a break in the day could be fulfilled by an activity that would raise his self-esteem and make use of his extraordinary talents, and set up a schedule to act as a “reading buddy” to second-graders who could use a little extra attention.

And it’s the way that these amazing teachers and administrators are extending the same caring resourcefulness to Griffin, who doesn’t even have an IEP, but has needed help adjusting to kindergarten. They created a “job” for him, carrying a crate of books to the nurse’s office in the morning, and back to the classroom in the afternoon, to let him feel proud of helping as he gets some much needed movement breaks. It’s the special desk they made for him, with faux fur, sandpaper, and a bumpy silicone potholder glued to the underside for him to fidget with instead of constantly touching his classmates and their work.

A thousand little things that make our kids stronger, calmer, more confident, more self-aware, and better prepared for the thousand little things that none of us can foresee from day to day. Like those waterfalls of brightly colored ten thousand origami cranes, fashioned by hand from paper and love, a labor of such dedication that it’s believed to grant the recipient one wish. Except that the visible sign of the grace and compassion of these people isn’t as perishable and impermanent as paper.

It’s the fast, bright, smart, funny, kind, curious, and beautiful boys that their actions are helping to grow. Every parent and every child deserves an education that gives results like this.

That’s why I’m fighting for Gwen.

Dec 15, 2011 - Political Science    1 Comment

Superior Volunteerior: Reverb Broads 2011 #14

Snuggled up with my boys on the capitol steps for the Read-In For Civility, in support of Neil Gaiman and libraries, May 2011

Reverb Broads 2011, December 14: Is volunteering something you do regularly? If yes, where do you volunteer? If not, why not? (courtesy of Kassie at http://bravelyobey.blogspot.com)

I am a total philanthropy geek — so much so that, last fall when I helped admin an event called Speak Out With Your Geek Out, I wrote about loving philanthropy like some people love video games and stuff. I love helping, and I love geeking out about new ideas and systems for getting that help to the people and places that need it most.

And volunteering is something I was brought up to do. As I’ve mentioned before, my grandma taught Red Cross first aid and swimming classes, and led Girl Scout troops for ages. My mom ran a dozen things at our church, not least of which the Sunday School program for a while, and did a stint as PTO president, too. And they were both the kind of people who wrote little cards to sick friends, or drove old people to doctors’ appointments — in fact, by the time she stopped doing that, my grandma was regularly driving people a decade or two younger than her, who would tell her how horrible it was to get old!

So it should come as no surprise that I volunteer in lots of places, all the time. This year, my sons’ school is the main focus of my volunteerism, so much so that it’s actually made me cut back on my level of involvement other places. I had to give up my shifts at the library when I picked up more work hours, and when I got elected president of the PTO, something had to give, so I dropped out of church choir for the time being.

As I’ve said before, we are incredibly blessed with an awesome neighborhood school, and I absolutely love volunteering there. This is going to sound horrible, but I like my own kids better when I’m spending time with other kids. I read aloud in their classes, I chaperone field trips, I advise the Student Council, and I do a whole host of things for the PTO. The kids all know me by name, and they wave and grin and stop me to tell me new (horrible) jokes and Important Things about their lives. I get paid in spontaneous hugs and flattering adoration. It’s a pretty awesome deal.

At the March for Women's Rights in Washington D.C., April 25, 2004. My sign says "Pro-Choice, Pro-Child"

I’m also very active politically. There are few things I like more than puttin’ on my protest boots and pounding the pavement for a cause I believe in. I dragged my family down to the capitol steps on a bright spring afternoon for a Read-In for Civility, after a stupid state legislator insulted awesome author Neil Gaiman for taking public money for a library program. I helped a friend with his city council campaign. I marched with supportive signs in front of Planned Parenthood on Good Friday. I attended activist training with Minnesotans United for All Families to help fight the proposed “marriage amendment” next year. When I believe in something, I think it’s worth acting on.

All of this is to compensate for the fact that we have almost no money at all to spare for charitable causes. I struggle constantly with wanting to support every worthy cause I encounter, especially this time of year, when the appeals are coming in hard and fast. I’ve reconciled the fact that time and talent are just as valuable to many organizations as treasure, but my heart still hasn’t relinquished all of the guilt that comes from having to turn down so many appeals. It’s hard to esteem your gifts when you don’t always esteem yourself.

Kid hugs go a long way, though.

Oct 7, 2011 - Literature    3 Comments

Time Enough At Last

Our house looks like a bomb went off. A small truck bomb, packed with multiplication flash cards, Star Wars guys, broken crayons, clothes, and empty cups.

And let’s not forget the printed material. There could’ve been a simultaneous CIA leafleting-from-the-skies campaign over every inch of our house, dropping readable matter like Minnesota snow. Fantasy books, romance books, picture books, chapter books, RPG books, video game guides, coloring books, workbooks, catalogs, newspapers, magazines, comics, junk mail, recipes, assembly instructions, maps, notes, drafts, calendars, phone messages, receipts, grocery lists, homework. Wobbly stacks, sliding drifts, impenetrable walls of paper.

Maddening as it is — like, “I’d like to drop a match in it before my mom visits for Thanksgiving” maddening — this is more or less how I grew up, always with something to read no further than my elbow. And if it’s there, I can’t not read it, if you know what I mean. The words go in as fast as I see them, so as I gaze around, I’m constantly bombarded by info; I’m not conscious of the time it takes to scan text. The inability to glance past things without absorbing them might be overstimulating for some people. Hell, it might be overstimulating for me, I don’t know; I’ve always been like this, so I don’t know any differently.

In fact, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I was spelling and mastering simple sight words at 18 months, and I tested at a fourth-grade reading level when they tried to figure out what to do with me in kindergarten testing. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who were pretty relaxed about letting me chow through reading material far beyond my age level, and I satisfied my voracious appetite for it by simply keeping as many books going at once as I could. Even now, I’m rarely reading fewer than three or four separate titles at once.

Now I’m going to ask you to do something. Take all of what I’ve just described — in my home, in my youth — and erase it. Just use that little Photoshop tool and scrub every last piece of reading material out of the picture, like a neutron text bomb. Imagine a house messy with toys and clothes and dishes, but no books or magazines or newspapers or homework. Imagine a young child, hungry to learn, curious about the world, stuck gazing out a window or watching TV or sitting on a stoop. Try, just try, to imagine a setting with absolutely nothing to read.

To me, this is the purest science fiction. It’s the Twilight Zone. I can wrap my head around time travel, and quantum physics, and non-humanoid aliens, and a billion other things, but I literally can’t conjure the image of a home without books. I shudder to imagine growing up in one, and it is pure horror to imagine raising my kids in one.

I’ve been trying to imagine this all week, since I heard a statistic from a 2006 study publicized by the United Way. The study found that, in middle-income homes, the ratio of books per child is 13 books for each child, which is itself a ludicrously low number compared with the bounty to which I am accustomed. That won’t even fill a single shelf — they’ll keep falling over.

But in low-income neighborhoods, that number flips and sinks like the Poseidon. The ratio becomes only one book for every THREE HUNDRED CHILDREN. Let me rephrase: one poor child gets one book, and 299 poor children get none. No books. Zero. Inconceivable.

My kids’ school has about 450 children. If this statistic extended into that setting, the school in that low-income neighborhood would have two books. But at least in a school, those two books would get passed around. Households don’t usually do that, so that one book doesn’t make its way around among the 300 kids. The other 299 just do without.

My first impulse, of course, is to go directly into the boys’ bedroom with a trash bag and sweep up every single book they haven’t read in the last two weeks, and drive down to the poor neighborhoods and just start handing out books. I know that’s not practical, and I know there are groups designed to put books into exactly the hands that need them most. You can bet your backside I’ve been doing research into exactly which groups can use exactly which books, and how to make those donations — if I find anything beyond United Way that’s available on a national level, I’ll post it in comments.

Ever seen that episode of The Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith as the harried bank teller who just wants time to read his book without his boss or his wife interrupting him? That episode’s what I named this post after. Eventually, he gets the time and the books, along with a cruel, ironic twist. But imagine if you had the time, and the desire to read, but no books. That episode’s playing all day, every day.


NB — Another point worth making: lack of access to books means lack of access to ideas that empower people to change their circumstances. Often, the ideas that motivate people to change their lives are found in banned books, which are even harder to access if you depend on schools and libraries, rather than your own purchasing power.

The Uprise Books Project aims to change that by putting free copies of banned books in the hands of impoverished and at-risk youth, exposing them to radical, perspective-shifting ideas. You can learn more and support the project here: http://www.uprisebooks.org/about/.

Give until you geek

The next installment in my Speak Out with your Geek Out blog posts is going to seem a little weird, and perhaps the premise will seem strange, or even a little self-aggrandizing (there’s a nice geeky term for you; it means that it might seem like I’m congratulating myself for this quality, if you haven’t come across it recently). That’s not at all what I’m going for, and it’s certainly not why I do this. Here goes…

I am a philanthropy geek.

I get ridiculously excited over plans to do good things for other people. I’m wildly enthusiastic about charities, foundations, organizations, grants, volunteers, fundraisers, relief efforts, drives, collections and goodwill offerings. I’ve even been known to put money in the occasional shaken can, so long as it’s being held by someone who doesn’t look completely indifferent and can’t be troubled to stop talking on the phone long enough to thank me for my donation.

I want shoes on every kid, mosquito nets on every bed, full backpacks on every kindergartner, roofs over every family, dignified suits on every interviewee, music in every school, accessible play features in every park, books in every hand, freedom in every heart, bluebirds on every shoulder…

<deep breath>

And I get unbearably, wriggling-in-my-seat excited about new and brilliant ideas for delivering services and solutions in the simplest, most effective, creative, inclusive ways possible. Kiva still gives me chills, every time I log on — pure genius. So are lots of the Gates Foundation initiatives. Nothing But Nets, the brainchild of Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, is the model of catchy simplicity (not to mention the fact that his initial pitch stands as a monument to gorgeous rhetorical writing, which makes it a geeky itch-scratch two-fer for me).

Now, unlike a lot of geeks I know, I’m not out there looking to make converts to my favorite things — proselytizing generally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you’re already curious, and looking for a little guidance, well now, that’s a horse of a different color entirely, and I’ll pour as much info into your brain box as I can. But I don’t want to impose my passions on anyone else, for the most part.

My philanthropy geek is the single and very large exception to this rule. I think philanthropy should be a part of school curriculum — public school, because generosity and compassion are human morals, and need to be reclaimed from religion for the good of society RIGHT NOW — from the first day of kindergarten until the day you move that tassel on your college mortarboard. Every single person needs to learn that the problems of the world are not insurmountable. They can be broken down into manageable parts on realistic timelines; evaluated for creative, efficient, and cost-effective solutions; and projects parceled out to participants of every age and skill level to maximize inclusion, successful accomplishment, and the pride and joy of seeing the positive change you’ve effected in the world.

The cruelest irony of my philanthropy geek is that my family is poor. I’m not looking for sympathy, and I’m not going into specifics, because it’s not a contest. Put it this way: my husband works full-time in the game industry, and between health, parenting, and the economy, I can only work part time. We benefit from the social safety net. We get by. But I am almost never in the position to give much of anything to any of the dozen awesome initiatives I hear about as I indulge my geek every week. If I could do a kickstarter for people to give me money to do awesome philanthropic projects with, I’d be all over that, but I’m guessing that’s against some rule somewhere. So my love goes financially unrequited, and I struggle to balance the urge to give my time and talents generously in compensation, and not knowing when to say “no.”

I stumbled into an outlet, though it’s perhaps the least likely, most absurd one you can imagine for a pink-haired, minority-in-all-but-race geek mom. At my very first PTO meeting ever, which I attended in an effort to learn more about Connor’s new school in our new city last year, they started talking about getting the languishing student council effort going. Student leadership, responsibility, growth, blah blah blah. I tentatively raised my hand, and asked, “What about philanthropy?” 20 pairs of eyes fixed on me with laser intensity. My geek fixation had turned on me. By the end of the meeting, I was the advisor to the new student council. But I had 18 smart, enthusiastic elementary-school kids to organize for my nefarious, do-gooder purposes.

And do good we did. So much so, I got myself volunteered to be PTO president. “Never in my wildest dreams” doesn’t begin to cover it. But the chances for more good are bigger I’ve never been able to envision before. So if I bug you for money for some cause, or to buy overpriced wrapping paper, feel free to say no — I totally understand, because I would have to say no, too. But if you say yes, you’re not just helping a charity. You’re helping me get my geek on.