Calling Out Our Roles in Perpetuating Normalized Injustice.
Just two days after the presidential election result, and students in my regularly scheduled classes seemed lifeless and downtrodden, defeated and deflated. They had no questions, no thoughts for discussion, because their world had let them down. Somehow they had thought one vote would do it all, but I told them that it was never just about this election.
The dog whistles coming from Clinton's opponent (and his tacit supporters) were sounding the very racialization, sexist anxiety, and empowered prejudice that has festered in the U.S. since before its founding. It's a fundamentalist voice that hides behind economic anxiety and patriotism, while minoritizing, marginalizing, and dehumanizing many of the very people who seek to make this union more perfect. Hate speech and its accompanying mob violence, vigilante aggression, structural injustices, and covert, normalized language of biological inferiority have never been fully denounced in this country, and that is the true shame of this moment.
Anyone clambering to declare "I am not a racist", has likely been unwilling to examine their participation in and benefit from structural inequity. For those of us who think we couldn't possibly be racist, sexist, ableist, class-ist, or otherwise, how do we treat people who (don't) look or sound like us? How much are our lowered expectations, dismissals, fears, and misunderstandings communicated in words like minority, wife, gay, ugly, unattractive, ghetto, poor, weak, foreign? What behaviors do we need to change, along with our language? How can we encourage each other to change?
My students looked so dejected, some close to tears. But this wasn't the time to tap out, I insisted. Now, more than ever, we needed to learn from this election, and from each other. We need to listen, reach out, and work together for social and structural change. And with that, I began preparing us for a visit to Serenity House, a community house and support center in North Philadelphia, where we would have a conversation with community partners about neighborhood activism and identity.
Centering the Stories of People of Color and Women in Models of Leadership.
From the sidewalk, we had also been unable to see the solar panels installed on the house's roof, part of an ongoing, community-led project and sustainability business for economic development called Serenity Soular. Before entering the house and meeting with several neighborhood residents, we couldn't know the tremendous pride they had in their community, their shared investment in intergenerational learning, and their commitment to make a difference.
Inside Serenity House, we sat in the living room to introduce ourselves, and began by talking with .O, resident community activist. She encouraged us to listen to one another, and invited several of her neighbors to join the conversation.
"You happen to be my hope. You are my future.
You are who we have been working for."
- .O, community activist, Serenity House
"Every city should have a Department of Solar Energy."
- Ky, community activist, Serenity House
In sharing her own journey in confronting anxieties about the changing slang of younger generations, and deliberately adapting her behavior to a language of openness and collaboration, .O was modeling for us the many different forms that leadership can take. Self-reflective healing, listening, communicating, and collaborating were ways of leading by doing. At the same time, centering the stories of people of color, and women, was an important part of pushing back against our comfort with Whiteness and maleness in charge. It was a lesson that all of my students could learn from, myself included.
Showing Up, Saying "Hi," and Working With New Community Partners.
Then, by a further reticence to see the interconnectedness of our anxieties around change, communication, and difference, we couldn't understand the systemic nature of inequality. "It's the invisible that creates the visible," .O explained.
We ended our visit to Serenity House in breakout groups for interviews with our new community partners, and a brief walking tour of the neighborhood off of Lehigh Ave. We learned that our new friends have been lawyers and witnesses in high school Mock Trial events, undergone extensive training in solar energy science, and put countless hours into confronting and expanding their own worldviews. We are more alike than different, and there is hope for change if we are willing to work for it.
This week, when we return to class, we will have already begun the important work of self-reflective growth, learning, and action. That is how our country has come this far, and it is how we will continue to move forward and share our resources in dismantling structural injustice and normalized bigotry. It was never our choice to connect with and learn from the Serenity House community, it was our responsibility. It's not my choice to call out bigotry, it's my responsibility. There are many ways to be a leader, but self-reflective change may be the most important.