Justice and Unity Speech December 3, 2016 Moore Square, Raleigh NC

The Greensboro Massacre took place on November 3rd, 1979 when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party opened fire on a crowd of protesters in broad daylight in the Black neighborhood of Morningside Homes in Greensboro, North Carolina, killing five members of the Communist Workers Party and wounding ten more. Sandy Smith, César Cauce, Michael Nathan, Jim Waller, and Bill Sampson. They were Black, white, and Latino, from elite and working class backgrounds, from the South and the North. They were spouses and parents. My parents were also survivors.

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which worked tirelessly reviewing documents and collecting testimony for two years, concluded that while the white supremacists planned and carried out the attack, the violence likely could have been avoided if the police had not left just beforehand, allowing the perpetrators to kill with impunity. The klan were given time to pack up their guns and leave before the police returned to arrest the wounded and grieving.

In the years that followed, all white juries acquitted the klansmen in both state and federal criminal trials, despite four different sources of video footage and the klansmen’s own unrepentant testimony. The survivors were charged with inciting a riot and black-listed. My mother was a public health pediatrician working with poor children and their families in Orange County. Jesse Helms went after her personally, trying to get her fired.

But he failed. He failed because her community of patients fought for her. The mamas whose babies she cared for circulated a petition, defending her and her commitment to their children.

The Communist Workers Party was far from perfect, but they showed up. They did the work. They lived in committed community. They listened to what poor and working people had to say. They respected their lives and culture, even when it was not shared. They worked with urban and rural poor; Black and Brown and white. They did multiracial organizing in the South where other progressive organizations would not because they either had to fight the Klan or work with people who were likely in the Klan. The November 3rd protest itself was meant to be the kickoff to a day of workshops about how the ruling class used the klan to divide working people in the South.

This is the legacy of Greensboro that I want everyone here to have crystal clear. Because it is the answer to why these particular organizers were targeted and how we will persevere despite what seem like overwhelming odds, today. These organizers were dangerous because they challenged white supremacy–not with their incendiary rhetoric, but despite it. They challenged white supremacy in the work they did every day in the factories and the mills and their communities and in the alternative vision of the South they strove for.

White supremacy is the fabric of daily life, everywhere. It has been a quiet truth for many; easily ignored or misinterpreted most of the time. For Black and Brown Americans, for immigrants, and for Native people around the world it has been a loud and inescapable reality since the first European colonists needed a veneer of religious legitimacy for their thieving greed.

We are at an inflection point in history in which millions of people who had not been deeply aware of the persistence of white supremacy have awakened to that reality. For many it began with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the realization that state terror against people of color is the status quo, rather than a few bad apples.

We mourn and rage as Native people are brutalized at Standing Rock and our leaders do nothing. We watch our public schools crumbling from the weight of attempted resegregation and lack of funds caused by tax cuts to the wealthy. We watch our country fall further and further behind on helping working families care for their young children without losing their livelihoods. Climate change has reached a tipping point and, as always, the most vulnerable communities suffer the most. The list of challenges is staggering and racism runs through it all.

So we struggle to understand how a society could become aware of all this tremendous injustice and respond by electing Trump. We are watching this nightmare of a presidency unfold, many of us experiencing real fear for the first time.

But this is not the first such historical moment. A similar moment occurred when the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War brought American injustice and hypocrisy into the light and millions of Americans became politicized for the first time. The reactionary push back against desegregation and the assassinations of the sixties brought home the reality of white supremacy and the vulnerability of our democracy.

That experience propelled people from all over the country to organize for justice and equality. Those who died in Greensboro were inexperienced until they began to do the work, and learned. For the past 37 years the survivors have continued doing both the political work and the community building work that is necessary to sustain a movement for justice. Thousands of people who came of age in the sixties made that commitment and continue to show up and do the work, every day.

What these organizers dedicated their lives to was a vision of the future for poor and working people in the South that offered an alternative to what 300 years of white supremacy has given us: racial and economic inequality, nepotism and backwardness in our institutions, and a toxic and brutal history of personal violence that has wounded our families and prevented Southerners from embracing so much that we share.

They thought they were just trying to overthrow capitalism, little did they know 🙂

The promise of what the South can be is what we are fighting for today. It is what the organizations that brought us together here and so many others have been striving for for decades. This is easier than the last time; we do not have to start new organizations from scratch. We do not lack experienced leadership. We have historical lessons that we can and must learn from. The struggle for justice and unity demands deep listening, humility, and more than anything a commitment to show up and do the work. There is room for everyone in this fight. That is how we defeat the klan. That is how we win.

Violent Fear and the struggle to raise peaceful men

Last night a mom friend wrote me, asking advice on resources to educate her 3 year old son about war without scaring him too much, but in a way that would head off romanticization of might, violence, and male warriorhood. I sighed. This is a parenting arena in which we have struggled mightily. It seems that no matter what we do our six year old is fascinated by bellicose activities. While it pales in comparison to some of what I see other kids his age doing, it’s still too much.

In the midst of the Trump nightmare, the epidemic of gun violence in America, the neverending spectre of sexual violence, and the ratcheting up of male rage, getting it right seems of monstrous importance.

We are pretty close to being pacifists and there is no violence or intentional shaming in our home. Until recently there were no toy weapons or media exposure to violence, either. Violence is a fact of life and we aren’t trying to pretend otherwise, but the natural world is full enough of life, death, and struggle without adding sensational, romanticized aggression into the mix. Yet our six year old son latches on to even the slightest reference with a vengeance. I thought Bed Knobs and Broomsticks was about a magical flying bed. He only cares about the five minute clip of zombie armor fighting nazis. We’ve read every Magic Treehouse book and what has stuck with him is a powerful fear of and desire to protect our family from nazis and confederate soldiers.

And yet this is an empathetic child who sings songs to the forest and reassures the poison ivy that it, too, deserves love. What drives this obsession with battle and war? It was easy to produce narratives about existential fear, abuse, or excessive media exposure before it was my kid, with none of those factors at play.

I recently had an “aha!” moment that felt ridiculously obvious and earth shattering at the same time. I was extra sensitive because it was the day of the Orlando shootings and he was trying to get his toddler brother to kill big imaginary bad guys with sticks with him. I just couldn’t. I pulled up a photograph of two men embracing, tears streaming down their faces. I showed it to him and told him what happened in Orlando. I didn’t go into detail and I’d never show him violent imagery. But I wanted him to see the human impact of what I felt he was making a game of. His eyes grew wide. He sat quietly for a moment and said “Is it okay if I make some security upgrades to the house? I want to put in some cameras and booby traps to keep us safe.”

He says things in this vein not infrequently. I always deal with it by talking about how safe our world is, how uncommon violence actually is, and how having weapons in your home and behaving aggressively toward possible intruders just makes it more likely that someone will get hurt. He has never been hurt or seen anyone hurt or heard of any people he knows being victims of violence. He is unbelievably privileged.

But this time he said “But these bad things DO happen all the time” and rattled off everything I’ve shared with him over the past few years. It hasn’t been much, but I talked to him about the Charleston killings. That was the first time I ever discussed current events with him and it prompted a thoughtful few weeks reading about slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. He knows that white supremacists–KKK and neo-nazis–tried to kill my parents before I was born. I’m sure there has been more that I don’t remember because it wasn’t as poignant.

I have been careful not to expose him casually to terror, and there is plenty of it no matter what you do. But as the mother of middle class white boys, I also feel this powerful tug to make sure they don’t walk around blind to the world they need to help bring down if we’re gonna make it.

But in that moment I realized that it doesn’t take much to terrify a child. “Much.” When I write  down what I’ve told him about, it seems like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the horror I know and absorb every day as a grown up in our society. My six year old is just like the fearful hordes driving Trump’s success. I can only hope that we’ll have given him better tools to cope with his worries by the time he’s of voting age.

His little human brain–that spent thousands of years evolving to kill or run–senses vulnerability and responds by trying to give him tools to reconquer his uncertain and scary world. All his obsession with war and weapons took on a new light. Yes, we need to dismantle that response to fear because this is not the world our human brains evolved for. But no, I don’t need to be scared that somehow I am raising a sociopath. He needs love, safety, and more love and more safety. And reminders of how good people really are. And promises that we will protect him because for six year olds, that’s what parents (should) do.

I felt like an asshole for sharing too much of the world’s ugly, too early. I thought I’d been so careful. But I felt a burden lifted, too. I had started looking at my child and feeling I couldn’t connect because I couldn’t understand his fascination. It’s fear. It’s always been fear. And if we are to be our best as a society we have to remember that even for the grown ones, it’s fear. That’s no excuse for becoming a terrorist–whether to your children, spouse, or everyone else–but to not reproduce these people we have to understand how they came to be.

So this morning my six year old came into the kitchen with tears streaming down his face. He looked at his father.

“Did you tell her?”

My partner had been out in the driveway with the kids and our eldest came over nonchalantly and informed his father he’d touched something that “looked like a slug, but wasn’t.” Pop’s parental instincts went on high alert. We live in the heart of copperhead country and I’ve already killed two babies this year and had two more get away from me. Sure enough, it was a baby copperhead and our son watched as his father killed it with garden loppers. At first he had asked to do the deed himself. He wanted to make us safe. But watching us take its life was too much.

He has been in mourning all day. He vows he will never tell us if he sees another one because he can’t bear the thought if it dying for no reason. When I killed a mother black widow last summer as she sat on her egg sack, we both went through the same sadness. But this time I saw it differently.

This is my small human, seeing something that could kill him and those he loves and feeling great empathy for it because it is alive and also deserves to be here. He buried it beneath a black walnut tree in our yard and made it a gravestone. And I feel hope for humanity.

“Snake died 6-26-2016”

Out of Time How bad family policy screws primary earners, too

My first year in college I ran for student congress on a progressive slate with a student body president candidate who was a woman, black, and queer. I learned a tremendous amount from that experience, but the conversation I recall most often was when she scoffed at someone talking about wanting equality for women. I was taken aback–because isn’t that what this was all about?

“I don’t want the shitty deal men have,” she said. “I don’t want equality; I want justice.”

I have spent years studying social policy and could say a lot about America’s pathetic and inhuman lack of supportive family policies–what it does to women and families, what it does to workers and our economy, how we waste the potential of mothers by pushing them into all-or-nothing career v. family choices because mixing the two is so awful, how leaning in is bullshit and leaning out is impossible for many…the list of what could be said is long.

But that’s not why I’m writing (one handed, while nursing).

I’m writing because when my spouse and I sat down last night to figure out what had to give for us to not lose our minds, we agreed sadly that I was the one who had to find a way to make more time. Me, the one who makes the food, buys the food, and grows the food. Who takes care of the kids all day, every day. The one who has no time for taking a class of her own and rarely gets time away from the children. Who showers once every 5 days and never gets to go to the bathroom alone. Who nurses all night and schleps the baby, changes diapers, ferries the big kid, tends injuries, mends clothes, maintains the family social network, and sometimes works for pay.


“the weekend”

Why? Because I’m the only one who can. Every moment of my partner’s time is already spoken for. He gets up with the kids at 5:30 and lets me sleep for an hour or two. He hustles to work after helping make lunches or doing a few minutes of reading with our 6 year old. He doesn’t get home until 6:30pm and the kids are in bed an hour later because, well, see above. That means he literally walks through the door and into bedtime routine. For a year all this included an average of six hours a day wearing our sleep-challenged baby, starting between three and four in the morning. When the kids are asleep we collapse to deal with grown up life–paying bills, making decisions about activities and scheduling, planning life. After I go to bed he stays up to clean the kitchen. He tries to play basketball Tuesday nights, but only makes it about once a month. Last week he had to work late. The week before he was sick with the the never-ending kid crud. On the weekends he vacuums and mows the grass, takes the kids to social engagements, lets me have some alone time with no one touching me, including him.

And his is an awesome deal that we are deeply grateful for. This is a privileged working parent’s normal life. He is lucky to have a stable job with flexibility enough that when I have mastitis or one of our kids gets injured, he can work from home or bail on a meeting. He is lucky to only have to leave us for work travel a few times a year. He is so very lucky to make enough that we can afford my choice to not work outside the home.

But when I had mastitis (the third time) a friend had to come over to care for our kids (with her kids in tow) because even though my husband was home, he was still working and I was in bed with chills and a sky high fever. In contrast, when my sister au pair-ed in Germany after high school and the mother (who was paid by the state and accrued social security because mothers at home with young children are also considered workers) broke her leg, the government provided a home helper 12 hours a week to do laundry and cook…because she couldn’t, and someone had to.

As weak as it may be, we do, as a society, have an accepted narrative critiquing the lack of support for employed and at-home mothers. The lack of paid leave, support for breastfeeding on the job, access to affordable childcare, leave to care for sick children, opportunities to advance at work without basically abandoning our offspring, etc. We sometimes extend this language to stay at home fathers, but we rarely stop and ask whether it’s okay for breadwinners–mothers or fathers–to have so little flexibility during their children’s formative years and to miss so much of it altogether. While half of both working fathers and mothers say they struggle with work life balance, twice as many dads say they are not getting enough time with their children.

We don’t talk enough about what mothers want and how to help them get it–whether the 40% who are at home with young children (in married families, 35% in single-mother households) or the 60% who are employed (Bureau of Labor Statistics). But we don’t talk at all about fathers, and 92.6% of those with children under 6 are working, and in over a third of heterosexual married-couple families are the only earner–in 62% the primary earner. It is rare that we question the notion that if someone is mostly home, someone else must be mostly working. Someone has to pay the bills. But what does that person’s life look like?

We have structured our expectations of breadwinners around the assumption that this person is peripheral to the beating heart of the family. We hear about it when women who have responsibilities for young children are also breadwinners, but we rarely ask ourselves what it means for the future of society that we assume it’s okay to ask this of non-mothers, as if somehow that person isn’t a real parent.

When we had our first baby my spouse’s employer gave fathers one day of paternity leave. One. Day. When we had our second they had given up the farce and eliminated even that one day of leave. You got a day off for moving, but not for your child’s birth. We felt lucky he had a couple weeks of vacation and that the birth was uncomplicated.

I sit here, raising boys with a full time working partner–a father who would give anything for more time with his kids, more time with me, more time with friends–and the palor of his days makes me ache. How do I offer this to my sons as a future when this is just about the best gig they’ll get, if they’re lucky? My partner gets snatches of our life when we are at our worst–tired and hectic. His time is not his own. He has handed it over to me with open arms because he knows my days are harder. He comes home and says “what do you want me to do with these 30 minutes? How can I help?” There is no give, no wiggle room. And that’s in a middle class family with a strong support network.

Last night my social media was overflowing with Donald Trump and the Stanford rapist. For months we’ve been drowning in the sick hatred of our North Carolina state legislators. We have a problem with patriarchy, yes, but the (mostly) men whose sense of impotent rage fuels that machine were children once and something happened to them. Yes, institutional racism and sexism. But we have been an economy that doesn’t care for families for a very long time and even in the Golden Age of the 1950s when white middle class families happily got by on one income, fathers were gone at work. For poor families everyone has always worked in one way or another. Mothers working across income levels has not given the other parent any extra freedom to be home with family more. Mothers working has simply meant more work done by the family, on average (58.5 hours of work a week between them in 2011, compared to 50 in 1965).

I am not arguing for simplistic explanations of major social problems, nor that women should be home. Quite the contrary–I am arguing that our public policies have failed to deliver equality, certainly, but have never even contemplated justice for families. There is no amount of money that would convince me to switch places with my spouse. I couldn’t anyway because me working the way he does wouldn’t free him from working the way he does. The jobs in his area–like so many white collar jobs–are not structured to allow for part time options. Because we don’t have equality, we couldn’t get by on my one income the way we can on his because I can’t make nearly as much. But we almost never ask what the costs are to primary earners, mothers or fathers, of this kind of economy. We almost never ask what it means for children to grow up with this view of their future. Sure, we talk about the glass ceiling (some of us, sometimes) and how to make sure girls see women in positions of leadership. But what are we really offering them?

It’s not a new question–in family policy it’s called American exceptionalism because everywhere else in the world that offers such horrendous choices for parents gets dramatically falling birth rates or female labor force participation. They watch us and wonder who on earth raises our children when we have no paid leave, no public daycare, and no public preschool. The answer is parents and grandparents whose lives have been stripped bare. Whose time has no give. And the price is paid in domestic violence, substance abuse, and lifespans shortened by stress and poor health–risk factors that are all exacerbated by the presence of young children. And let’s not forget generation after generation of children who see parenting as an exhausting slog that eats us down to our most vulnerable selves.

The worst part (or perhaps the best part?) is that this ain’t that hard to fix. In 2000 the Netherlands passed a law requiring employers to permit all workers to be part time if they wanted–with proportional losses in pay and benefits, more or less (here’s a nice lay person’s summary). Overnight a quarter of the population went part time. Women AND men. The Dutch choose less work and less income and so would much of America. And they are really happy. Hell yeah, I’d like for us to pay mothers salaries and provide free high quality public childcare from age 0-6 and do a million other things to support breastfeeding and early child development. We need those things. But if we aren’t going to be Sweden, we could still be a way better America and vastly expand means tested benefits for those who really need them and make part time employment options mandatory. Oh, and mandate paid leave for new parents like nearly every other country in the entire world, for crying out loud.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. My circle is full of amazing combinations of multiple mothers, multiple fathers, all one or the other, grandparents and cousins and friends who could be blood. Families where fathers are home with children and families where everyone is employed. Family is what we make it. But this country is failing itself by not acting like our families matter, on so many levels. I want something better for myself, yes, but I also want something better for my full time working partner because he wants to be the parent that his kids deserve. And he could be…if only he had the time.