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Working Black & White: A Brief History of Troublemaking

This is part II of a series. You can start with Part I here.


I am in my last year of college to get my degree in English Literature when I decide to take a detour and get my credentials so that I can teach. A year before this I decide to get a minor degree in Afro-American studies because, after seeing the first of many It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand t-shirts I am intrigued. 

I want to understand. I am trying to understand. I have precious little background information sufficient enough to sustain any sort of intellectual discussion on race in America. I sincerely hope my ambiguous ethnicity doesn't become an issue.


The minor degree requires that I take an Afro-American history class, an Afro-American music course, an Afro-American dance class, etc... I am reading poetry by Nikki Giovanni and the writings of Audre Lorde. I am just meeting James Baldwin for the first time. I am reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I am hearing the words of Ntozake Shange and smarting from the truth of it. 

I am still uncomfortable calling myself a Black Woman, capital B capital W. 

I am not quite a woman, I think. I have so much more to learn. But I am figuring it out.


When I finish my educational credential courses I am assigned a teacher at the local high school of the town where my college is. My cooperating teacher is top notch. I learn that she lives across the street from my townhouse and we become good friends. 

I want to teach a coming-of-age novel by Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain because I've just finished it along with Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison but that's too much for high school sophomores. 

She tells me, "This is an advanced English class, but you'll be surprised by how much they don't know". I learn that they're mostly the children of the professors from the college and they'll work hard for me, but that's when I discover what schema is and how important, in Kantian philosophy, it is that I help them build it.

I fail miserably at teaching Baldwin and my cooperating teacher says, "Try again." 

I do, but I'm not satisfied. I realize that I didn't know the degree of my own Blackness and I choke on the word "we" when discussing Black culture. 

I work on this for the better part of my 20s.


I am in my 20s and teaching full time. I learn a new word. Miscegenation. I learn new phrases from white people who seem genuinely surprised that I don't know their words. Porch monkey. I think this must be country racist white folk stuff because it's new to me and I don't live in a progressive city anymore.


Photo credit to Sara Ashley, former student

I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the copies of the books I have are marked up and every time Mark Twain had written nigger it was blacked out. Whoever taught from this set of books before me must have done this. 7th graders are smarter than we give them credit, though, and it starts a discussion in my classroom. This makes some other teachers nervous. They call the principal on me and then the parents begin making complaints that I'm "teaching the students the word 'nigger'" which is the most laughable thing that comes out of her mouth when she's called me in to speak. I'm not teaching them this word. I'm deconstructing it historically. That's what scares them.

So, Mark Twain writes the word, the white teacher before me has the students cross it out, and when I discuss it with students due to their genuine curiosity, I am the one who is reprimanded. Everything is backwards.


I make the jump from classroom teacher to building administrator. It comes with a lot of new responsibilities that I learn to roll with even when I question how or why we do things. For instance, I am tasked with taking a student home who is being disciplined. We get in my car and I follow the directions, just a 3-block drive. She is a white girl, around 16. She's been skipping school and I am an administrator now so it's part of the discipline for me to contact her family but her mother can't come get her and asks if I can drive to her. I get permission before doing this. 

When we get to her house her mother comes outside to yell at her and then tells me her daughter is a no-good, rotten girl. As I'm learning to speak a new administrative language I gently try to share that it's not helpful to shame her. Her mother tells me that if she would "stop sneaking out with those nigger boys" at night and ruining her window screen from sneaking back in, she wouldn't be so mad.

I am wide-eyed. I am speechless. I am trying to be professional.

She continues.

"I ain't got nothin' against them, you see. God just didn't mean for the races to mix. We stay with our own." 

I close my eyes, breathe deeply in and out a few times to ensure oxygen gets to my brain, and turn around and get in my car. She's still talking to the back of my head but I honestly don't know what to say to her. 

I wonder if I am in the right job.


I am fluctuating between the terms African-American and Black when I describe myself at 29. I remember this because it's something I wanted to make a decision about at 30.

I am fluctuating between having the argument about who gets to say nigger and who doesn't. 

I am 30 and married to a white man who jokingly calls his white friends snicker ("what up, my snicker?") and they laugh and laugh. I do not.

I am 34 and new phone technology makes it possible for us to use voice command to make phone calls. My husband nudges his white friend in the ribs and says, "Watch this." and I think there's going to be a very funny joke but I don't realize it's going to be at my expense and he commands his phone using awful and hurtful words. 

"Get my hoe!" he tells his phone.

A moment later, my phone rings.

I am 35 and I leave him.


I am 36 and at the beginning of divorce proceedings when I learn that, in the state of Illinois, all legal documentation describe me as Negroid. I balk at the term. It is clinical and scientific and anthropologically racist and outmoded as a term. I don't see this until I'm looking at papers about agreements. Don't ever let anyone tell you that the states don't care about your marriage when it's dissolving. They have a financial interest.

I am asking my lawyer what it is that he wants and she is asking me what I'm willing to concede. I am astounded that he is asking for so much (the house, all the contents, full custody of our teenage sons, palimony to the tune of $700 a month, child support) and I ask my attorney what I can do about it.

"The problem is that you can fight this since you make more money than he does, but there's no case on the books of a white husband suing his Black wife in Illinois. This would become a test case. This can become about race, but there's something from Arizona that we might be able to use to fight this."

I am not interested in becoming a test case. This man is not disabled and sitting around doing nothing. This man has a full-time job and is capable of working. This is my own fault. I didn't know who I married. But I know who I'm divorcing.

I am much smarter now.


I am dating another white man. Everyone at his job calls him Cuban because he tans so dark in the summer that one time I went to visit him and went right past him. I didn't recognize him he'd gotten so dark. I laugh at this because he tells me he's just a garden-variety white dude and I tell him he needs his DNA done because somebody in yo family been messin'. 


Photo credit to Pinxit Photography by Raquita Henderson

I am adamant we have some understanding about cultural competency.

I rent him "Good Hair" by Chris Rock. 

It's starts a conversation. He tells me he completely understands my need to have a metric ton of hair product in the bathroom cabinet and my need to visit my hairdresser on a regular basis.

He's going to work out just fine. 

I talk about race, racism, racism in America, being Black, loving Black and everything Black with him. He doesn't balk. He doesn't need to be taught. He will never call me a hoe. He doesn't disrespect me. This is mutual, grown-up love. It's messy but full of forgiveness. It's two people bringing baggage and laying it bare on the table and saying, This is what I bring. I am flawed. You wanna take this mess on?

I am 44 and I marry him.


A Storytelling Trip with Exodus Road

Of the many things at which I am not expert, planning ahead is one of them. When my friends in education tell me about where they're traveling for the summer in January I am usually jealous that they can think that far ahead. Yet, this past January something crossed over into my view and I've been pondering it ever since. 

I do know what I'm doing this summer.

In June I'm heading to Southeast Asia with a group of storytellers that I know and have known for quite some time. For now, I'll let the others tell about their involvement with this group traveling with The Exodus Road but I can share a lot of things now about it and why I decided to join with them. 

First of all, Exodus Road does abolitionist work in the sex slave industry both in the states and abroad. They help find and free slaves in covert rescue efforts. And the things I've discovered about them is that they're not trying to be the White Knight going in to rescue: they're invested in supporting local government to complete their work. There are things I wouldn't know about the industry had I not read a book by Laura Parker, The Exodus Road: One Wife's Journey Into Sex Trafficking and Rescue. It's a story of ordinary people looking to do extraordinary work.


Several years ago, I was having lunch during a summer school break, and my friend Alaya was late meeting me for Italian food. As I sat in the booth waiting I decided to do my favorite pastime and people-watch. A woman in her 30s came in with three girls. She was wearing too-hot clothes for the day, but I brushed it off with the thought that she might have spent time in an air-conditioned place where she needed her sweater. Except, it was warm in the restaurant and she took it off. When she did, it revealed a huge bruise on her back and I couldn't stop staring at it.

My attention turned toward the girls, each a different race. 

This part was important. It's not out of the ordinary to see something like that, but none of the girls' race matched the woman's so I tried concocting a story about them. 

When Alaya finally arrived I pointed them out and mentioned how bizarre a group they seemed and she looked over at them, turned back toward me, and flatly stated, "Kelly. Are you for real? Those girls are hookers." It gobsmacked me that I hadn't thought that, but I pressed on for proof from Alaya because no, right? No way. "You mean of their own accord? Because I doubt those youngish looking girls with her are doing this because they want to."

(I also wondered why she was taking them out for lunch in public but they have to eat. It surprised me because it seemed risky.)

If they were all adults and sex workers, that's one thing. Honestly, you'd be surprised about my feelings on that. You do you, boo. I am all for adults making their own decisions about their bodies. 

But these were girls probably no older than 15 tops. Girls that I thought should be school-aged. If this is how they're spending their summer, can they be doing so of their own volition?

It's a moment I'll never forget: that slow realization that sex trafficking happens right here where I live, where I'm eating lunch. Yet, the clutched cash they used to pay for their meal and the skittish looks of the girls made me wonder if they were doing this because they were forced to do so. It pains me to say that I don't know how the story ended with them but we did report it to a non-emergency number and the officer we spoke with said they'd been looking for girls fitting that description. I've convinced myself that everything worked out well for them, but if they were runaways to begin with then I'm less sure.

In any case, that story is what made me think of reaching out to a local group who does that work so that I could learn more. When I was invited by The Exodus Road to go and learn about the abolitionist work they're doing in the sex slave industry on the other side of the world it hit me in the gut: where I live is the other side of the world, too. And it's not so different in many regards.

We have our problems here, too. What kind of a community member would I be if I traveled across the globe to witness slavery in this form but didn't think about how my ordinary life could support efforts in my own town?

That this trip is even a possibility for me is no small thing.



Fast facts about my decision to accept this invitation:

I won't be writing some kind of review of SE Asia or the work of TER. Instead, I am joining as a storyteller. 

I want to be honest about what I learn, what I see, and be authentic in listening to stories. 

I want people, wherever they are, to have autonomy in their narrative. Doing this with fidelity will undoubtedly be transformational but it's the lens through which I view this opportunity. 

In my own effort to be a responsible storyteller, my aim is to show ways to donate and help, even if that means you share information and articles about what's happening and what ordinary people are doing to help.

Sometimes, no one else is telling the story. I would never know about some organizations or the work they do if it weren't for my friends, both local and global.

I respect the work of organizations that work to develop deep local relationships in order to support them.

It's important to me that TER is invested in support prevention and after care projects for holistic victim care. Before, during, and after a rescue they provide training for nationals, encourage collaboration among practitioners through The Liberty Alliance, and work to mobilize civil society to actively fight trafficking in their own communities.

Jeremy Stanely, the traveling videographer for this trip, summed it up on his website for me:

“You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth & a human being is a story.”

Full disclosure: TER is paying for my travel and accommodations and I realize that my contribution is supported as a marketing piece of their organization. Sure, they could spend that in any way they want. This venue and platform is just one way they get the word out about what they do.


In 2012 when I was visiting Ethiopia I had moments where I worried about intruding on the spaces of the women and the health camps and bee keepers we listened to about changing their lot in life. The struggle of the chasm between my world and theirs weighed heavily on me but in the process it helped me learn about my own country and government aid, yet it was in speaking to a young mom that hit home for me. When I asked, through a translator, what she thought I could do she responded with, "Can you just tell them? Can you let people know what is happening and that they can look directly at our situation and then ask how they can do something? You can all do something."

I held her hand but didn't want to take her picture to share. I could tell people, I decided. That much I could do.

One of the opportunities that we will get is to focus on interviews with 3 fishermen/former slaves who will open our eyes to the ways in which this form of slavery starts and manifests. I have a feeling that a lot of lines will be drawn for me to see how industries are connected in ways I haven't even considered yet.


Another deciding factor for me is that this isn't a one-off rescue mission for them. The Exodus Road financially supports, organizes, and leads training events and programs to encourage the success of nationals in the abolition movement. The follow up they provide to rescued girls was a really important piece for me.

The role of The Exodus Road is to support the efforts of local law enforcement and government organizations in the intervention arena, not to be solely responsible for the rescue. Please don't expect that Liam Neeson speech from me. I don't have a particular set of skills outside of storytelling (and education, but I had to go to college and grad school for that) and I'm certain I will be able to draw some parallels between what I've learned about the sex slave industry where I live and also in SE Asia.  

This is my invitation for others to come along and learn what we learn while we're there. To see what ordinary people do when they move out of their space to do extraordinary things. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #TERstorytellers.


The Quiet Ambassador Program

A few months ago I was connected with an editor from The Quiet Revolution, a platform that accompanies Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. As a self-proclaimed extrovert, I wasn't immediately hooked because I wondered what it would have to offer me. After all, shouldn't this apply to me if I'm going to embrace reading it?

It turns out, no. Everyone should read it because a full 50% of our world is introverted and how are we going to live and work together if we don't understand the needs of others? Cain's book explores how much we misunderstand and undervalues the traits and capabilities of people who are introverted. She then created Quiet Revolution as a means to reach out to parents and has since created the Quiet Schools Network

The first thing I did, upon speaking to Heidi Kasevich, the director of Quiet Education, was take several online assessments to determine whether I truly am an extrovert. You can take the Quiet Revolution Personality Test here.

It's a short 10-question test and the one question that made me guffaw (because I know myself very well) asked me to rate this statement: when I was a child, people described me as "quiet".

Because hahahahahahaa. No way. I was frequently involved heavily in running my mouth. It's written all over my report cards. I was the opposite of Quiet. I ran with large groups of friends constantly and was terribly bossy as a child and any trouble I got in at school usually started because I couldn't shut up.

Yet, here's the funny part: I was a kid lost in thought a great deal of the time. My mother used to tell me that I was like a house with all the lights on and no one was home because I'd stare into space. So, while I was loud and boisterous and tomboyish, I was also reflective and pensive even and had my nose in a book at every opportunity.


This is not me, but how I often looked when staring into space as a child.

photo credit: Pout via photopin (license)

Another test I took online took about 25 minutes and some of the questions that needed to be rated surprised me in how I answered them because they seemed diametrically opposed and it felt like my answers were all over the place:

I prefer keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself. (NO. I WILL TELL YOU.)
I need downtime to decompress. (YES. EVERY DAY.)
My life is an 'open book'. (YES. I AM A BLOGGER FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.)
I offer my time, skills, and knowledge freely to other people. (YES, BECAUSE MOUTHY.)

I scored a 59 on a Need for Space subscale and my personality type is a Chameleon. Here's the descriptor:

Chameleons can adapt to almost any social situation, whether they're among a throng of partygoers or in reflective solitude. Known to be fairly friendly and gregarious people, Chameleons aren't hard to like or connect with; they're good conversationalists, good listeners, and great company. Although they're more than happy to join a boisterous get-together, they do enjoy some quiet time on their own as well. They're approachable and relatively unreserved individuals whose presence is neither obtrusive nor inconspicuous.

So, while I score high on being an extrovert, I have lots of introvert tendencies. For example, after working with students and staff each day I come home and say a short hello-how-was-your-day to my father and then immediately escape to my room where I require a full 20 minutes of silence. My phone is off and I may lie down and close my eyes or meditate or play a mindless game, but I can't talk to anyone because it's how I decompress from the day. 

Occasionally, my husband and I chat on the phone while he's driving for a short bit until he says, "Ok, I'm ready for my quiet time," which I completely understand and allow him to have since I've already had mine. It's one way in which we are very alike so there are no hard feelings about him saying he doesn't feel like talking.

Usually because I'm thinking, "Dude. Fine. I need to go have some Think Time anyway."

What I've really learned from talking to Heidi is that I'm most likely an ambivert, someone right in between. I can be on stage and in front of a crowd surrounded by people, but I need that quiet think time where I read and ponder and work out in my head what I've taken in throughout the day. 

That's when I decided to apply for the Quiet Summer Institute. Next month, I will attend two days of workshops where I will learn more about and get a deeper awareness of my personality style as well as learning how to identify and recognize those introverted, quiet students in order to enhance what I know about being an educator. Many teachers and administrators will learn how to bring more balance to the classroom environment and will be leading the charge to ensure that we're not marginalizing students. Any way that I can better understand how to harness the power of students in the classroom and provide professional development to teachers about this mindset shift is where I want to be.


photo courtesy of Quiet Ambassador

I'm excited to become a Quiet Ambassador through this year-long process, but I wouldn't be going if it weren't for the generosity of friends who helped me get there. After this training is complete, I will commit to mentoring colleagues and facilitating conversations within schools as well as writing for and providing resources for future Quiet Ambassadors. It's going to be an exciting year and I can't wait to share because I know this will be an enormous life-changing institute after having read Susan's book. 

When I shared on Facebook how I would like to attend and that I needed help with possible grant funding, my friends shut me down almost immediately and asked how they could help. I insisted that I could work for it and write a grant, but time is of the essence and enrollment to the Institute is limited.

This is where I tell you that I have the best friends in the world. 

Even if I could, I don't think I could adequately thank them for supporting me and encouraging me to do this. They know how passionate I am about marginalized groups, no matter what they are. They know that I'm working towards powerful things right now in this season of my life. And they know that I'll report back (that was part of the deal I made and I'm honored to do so) and share all my learnings on every platform which I am lucky enough to have.

I must thank the following friends who have become benefactors to me on this journey and who chipped in within one hour to attend this training as well as the transportation to NYC this summer:

A’driene Nieves 
Alison Gil Durand
Angie Bollero 
Ann Coleman 
Ashley Garrett
Becky Scott
Bonbon Break 
Catherine Connors
Celeste Lindell
Chrysula Winegar 
Dawana Whyte
Dawn Cole
Deanna McNeil
Debra Roby
Elisa Camahort 
Elizabeth Nelson 
Elizabeth Price
Gay Bride Guide 
Ginny Wolfe 
Gurukarm Khalsa 
Healing Circles (Vanessa Jackson) 
Heather Koshiol 
InfiKNITi Handmade 
Jen Dillman
Jenni Grigsby-Rogal
Jenny Lauck
Jet Harrington 
Kelly Russell 
Kelly Whalen
Kristine Koumentakos 
Kymberli Barney
Laura Willard 
Leah Peterson 
Leslie Fandrich
Lisa Rokusek
Liz Manfield
Liza Kessler 
Lori Vest 
Madeline Holler
Malati Harris 
Mary Kenney 
Matthew Penning 
Melanie Sheridan
Meredith Walker
Mia Woods
Nina Bargirl
Nora White 
Rachel Lopez  
Raya Johnson
Robin Joy
Roxana Sarmiento 
Shannon McKarney 
Spoken Wade 
Tabatha Muntzinger 
Tarrant Figlio
Taya Dunn Johnson 
Will Jones
Yvonne Parsons  
Thank you to all these friends who gave, however big or small, for supporting me. We're going to change the world together.

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