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Wednesday
Aug202014

The Narrative: Fannie Lou Hamer and Ferguson, Missouri

Last night I told myself to stay away from the news and yet my father picked up the remote control and changed it from the Little League World Series to MSNBC. There's something about talking to our parents, especially if they're Black and lived through the Civil Rights Movement in this nation, about seeing patterns repeated. While it was more of the same I went to bed consciously thinking of other things.

Yet, I woke up with a name in my brain as if I dreamt about her. I cannot remember all my dreams so if she was there I don't know. But Fannie Lou Hamer repeated over and over until I said her name aloud.

"Fannie Lou Hamer. That's what this is." 

 

In the last couple of years I have paid attention to manifestos and storytelling and the narrative. What is most powerful to me, then, is that whoever controls the narrative controls the story and in the case of Michael Brown and the disastrous reaction of the Ferguson police and the Missouri governor sending in the National Guard to protect the police and not the people, their narrative is full of character assassination, non-transparent information, and straight up bullying.

Which is probably how Fannie Lou Hamer's name came into my head. Her famous words rang all throughout my brain: I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Not long ago, PBS showed this on American Experience. This is just a clip of it.

Fannie Lou Hamer was an evicted sharecopper removed from her plantation when she was a part of a group of people who tried to register at her county courthouse. Fannie was to be taped on live television to give her testimony about those events and President Johnson, that weasely terrorist betrayer of his own country, did the unthinkable: he came up with a bogus excuse to have a press conference to make sure the cameras weren't on Mrs. Hamer and her testimony. 

Last Friday's press conference in which police chief Thomas Jackson began with him detailing a robbery. Think about how that narrative has altered for just a moment. First, the story began with Michael Brown fighting with an attacking an officer, then it was that he reached for the gun (from 35 feet away?) and then it was that he was blocking traffic. IT TOOK POLICE SIX DAYS FOR THEM TO COME UP WITH A STORY. 

Listening to that police chief felt like watching President Lyndon Johnson work up his own narrative about what was important. 

No wonder people are confused. But, let's not sugar coat the fact that race and racism are factors here, too. (If you don't think this has to do with race I'd like to ask how you feel about a Black actor playing Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four because IT SEEMED TO MATTER AN AWFUL LOT THEN.)

As an activist, Mrs. Hamer was arrested on false charges. She was beaten, threatened, and those in power and office worked to cover it up and silence her.

The owner of the plantation where she worked got angry at her for trying to register to vote. He threatened her to withdraw her registration. To vote. In America. As a citizen.

In 2007, Naomi Wolf wrote Ten Steps to Close Down an Open Society and it is eerily coming to fruition right now. I urge you to read it and align it with the events of the last 11 days. Wolf writes:

Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree - domestically - as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government - the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of "homeland" security - remember who else was keen on the word "homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells it might have.

It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable - as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.

Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.

There are a lot of things happening in Ferguson, Missouri right now that are too close to our Civil Rights history in America and many words are rolling over and over in my head.

Sick and tired. False narratives. Police brutality. 

Of course, I also hear this, loudly: 

Stay woke.

Fannie Lou Hamer's words ring too true in 2014.

I question America. Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America. 

via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday
Aug142014

Teaching Outside the Box

Nearly 18 years ago I was a classroom teacher to 8th grade students and the flavor of the day was Literature Circles which I can sum up as being a Book Club for kids. Since I was new to teaching junior high students I wasn't familiar with the novels I collected in a bin from the book closet. I just grabbed several titles (some I had read, some I hadn't) and set up my classroom so that groups of 3-4 could read a book together and really get to the meat of it in small groups. 

That was the year of the Stars. That's what I called them. They were superior in every way, this group. A ton of talented, brilliant students who challenged me daily and made me a better teacher. Before the Stars came along I didn't know I wanted to be an excellent teacher. I just knew I wanted to teach. Every project I assigned them came back with suggestions. 

"You know what would be super cool, Mrs. Wickham? If we did this project but added THIS."

They were innovators, explorers, and rebels. Every last one. I loved that group. I cut my teeth on that group.

Once they paired up and then again to create a group of 4 they browsed the book selections I chose for them and decided, as a group, on what to read. 

Wouldn't you know it? I had some serious readers in that class and they'd read everything I had already picked out but it wasn't their sassy responses to me of "Ugh, we READ these already" that comes with developing adolescents that surprised me; it was my response to them.

"Fine, then the four of you go to the library and find a title with 4 copies and read whatever you want."

I had never gone off script before as a teacher. There were rules and I followed them. There were best practices and I tried them. But to find my own voice and release some autonomy in my own classroom? That was just unheard of at this point. 

 

They came back with Lois Lowry's The Giver and instead of coming back with 4 books they came back with 5. One of them, Jill, sashayed up to my desk once they returned and said, "Here. We got a copy for you to read, too."

Those turkeys. They roped me into reading a YA book that would become, for me, my favorite genre of all time as a reader. Since those girls challenged me that day I realized that I loved these selections the most. After that year, I became the Department Chair for Language Arts. A very sexy title with a ton of work and a small stipend of money. 

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Just last weekend while The Cuban and I cleaned out the garage I found a purchase order from a book company when I worked at that school. Taking it out of the box I gasped and immediately walked over to him, pointing at the paper I was so proud of long ago. 

"Do you know why I saved this?"

He studied it for a moment and quickly raised his eyebrows. "Because it reads Kelly Wickham, Department Chair on it."

"That's right. I was important. And I was only 25 at the time. The youngest department chair they'd ever had."

My first order of business was buying a school set of The Giver. There are several reasons for it not the least of which is that it is a fantastic piece of literature. Over the last week 2 of my former students have mentioned it to me in social media spaces because the movie is coming out and they commented that they remember reading it in my class. Two girls, now women, that I taught at different schools (I move around a lot and made it a priority to continue teaching it) who recall the power in it.

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I'm thinking about that power a lot today. The power of a teacher is immeasurable. My life is made up of these stories of kids who let me falter in the classroom. They allow me the grace of not knowing what I'm doing. 

They let me teach them about some distant dystopian future where life is controlled for us and, more than that, they let me do another first: talk about racism. Lowry's book isn't set up that way, but it lends itself to discussions of creating perfect societies and how humanity ultimately fails at that. 

Today, of course, I'm thinking of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri. 

I'm thinking of where I was last year at this time and I was angry and filled with incredulity over the murderer of Trayvon Martin getting off in a stunning moment for Black Americans, especially those who parent Black boys. Last summer I was also losing a nephew to illness, a Black young man himself. The anniversary of his death is creeping up on me but I won't let it. The acute awareness of the date bongs daily like a giant clock. 

Grocery shopping with my boyfriend yesterday, I passed the Coca-Cola with names on them. Share a Coke with Kyle one of them read. 

It stunned me to see his name. When I hear a song that reminds me of him or look back at my text messages with him or come across his pictures still hanging in multiple rooms in my house I say aloud, "Hey, Kyle" because I assume he's trying to get my attention. 

We lose Black boys too quickly in this country. No matter how they go away from us.

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When I taught The Giver to my final class of students before I became an administrator I used to tell my students about the racism I've witnessed and experienced. They were off-the-cuff moments that caught me off guard. Can I talk about this in the classroom? Am I going to get in trouble if I speak a reality to this mostly-White group of students?

I wondered that a lot at first and then, magically and quickly, I stopped wondering. What would I get in trouble for? Stating facts? Exploring history? 

When I consider how scared I used to be I roll my eyes at my younger self. 

*******************************

The greatest thing I did in my classroom with The Giver was to allow debate. [Spoiler alert for those who haven't read it.] After I read it the first time I put it in the mail for my mother who was living in California at the time. We did that often if we liked a book so I sent it with a note that she was to call me once she finished it. Our conversation went like this:

Mom: I loved it and was so sad at the end!

Me: Sad! What? No. Why were you sad? Jonas and Gabriel got away and were free!

Mom: Mmmmm, you could be wrong, Kelly, because they both die.

Me: WHAT? NO WAY THEY DIE. What book did you read?

We went on like this for a bit and argued our points until I picked up another copy of it and we read the ending together. Upon the 2nd reading I noticed that the ending was ambiguous and that her points were well taken. I could see how she thought that and she could see my side as well.

The next time I read that book with my class I made them read the last chapter for homework. When they returned the next day I stopped them at the door and had my room divided into sides. 

"We're having a debate today and you must have your books to offer textual support for your opinions. Go to that side of the room if you believe there's a happy ending. Go to this side of the room if you believe they don't make it at the end."

They let each other have it. It was amazing to witness. Passions came out, accusations flew, sides were compromised (you could move once and only once to the opposing side if they convinced you) and I wouldn't find out until later that I was allowing them to use the Socratic Seminar approach to debate. (Look! I was a good teacher and I didn't even know there was a name for what I was doing!)

It was this structure that I would employ, later on, to talk about the hard stuff. To talk about race and use historical support and real feelings. It's what I would do in person, with passions and compromise for understanding. It's what I do.

Lowry, the author, would later come out to say that he doesn't die and she even wrote a sequel to it proving her point. (Haha, mom. I win that one.)

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I'm currently not in the mood for compromise. But that doesn't mean that absent a classroom I no longer teach. 

Go read that book if you haven't. I'm unsure about the movie because I treasure the words and chapters and memories of my students' debates. That singular book reminds me of the control I let go of in my powerful role as teacher and it gave me permission to go off script.

It's a glimpse into the perfect world we know won't ever exist no matter how much we want that.

Thursday
Jul102014

Celebrating Girls & Women

If I were ever in the position to be a beauty queen (nope, not happening) and had to choose a platform I know exactly what I'd promote: anything that celebrates girls and women. It's not that boys aren't important and I have 2 sons of my own so I see a need for them, too. But this passion around girls and women has only been fueled in the last several years. It's as if I was a dry, thirsty forest and someone came by and dropped a lit match on me. 

Athena Awards

Two months ago I found out that I was a nominee for the Illinois Women in Leadership Award. They call it the *Athena Awards to honor those women who encourage, support, and assist women in reaching their leadership potential. Some of this just comes naturally, for me, by virtue of my job. Not only do I come into constant contact with young girls on the cusp of womanhood, but I have made a mission out of supporting causes that allow girls the permission of agency in their lives. 

I support my local Girls on Track and have been a running coach as well as a keynote speaker at their fundraising events. Just last week I returned from my second Coca-Cola sponsored trip celebrating women. Online, I fight for that on a fairly regular basis especially in social media. I religiously follow Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party

What I'm saying is that it happens in a lot of spaces for me and I'm grateful to have an online voice that turns into real-life activism for women wherever it is that I lend my voice.

So getting this chance at being an honoree at the Athena Awards was pretty special to me.

ONE Foundation

Most of my work with the ONE Foundation has been focused on that and my trip, in 2012, centered around seeing what Federal Aid dollars were doing as well as what the Ethiopian government does in cultivating spaces for women. I've shared this video before, but it's worth a watch to see what ONE is doing for women.

Today, the ONE Foundation is launching the ONE Girls & Women Initiative on which I am an Advisory Board member along with some of my blogging contemporaries.  

This is work I am immensely proud to do and be a part of and my relationship with ONE continues to grow which makes me wonderfully happy.

 

Meet Us at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Feminism and The Internet

 

At the end of this month, I'll be on a panel and joined by some powerhouse women on a panel at BlogHer's 10th Conference discussing, among other things, how these issues of race, gender, and feminism intersect on the Internet where we all do some of our work:

Feminista Jones (on Twitter, where a lot of magic happens)

Kristen Howerton of Rage Against the Minivan

Grace Hwang Lynch (again, her Twitter page)

Natalia Oberti Noguera, the Founder and CEO of Pipeline Fellowship

Patrice Lee, Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum

moderated by the founder and publisher of Jack & Jill Politics, Cheryl Contee, who is also a co-founder of Fission Strategy

Through all this, I remain as on fire for this work for women as I have ever been. Each time an invitation to speak is offered or a nomination is bestowed I wonder if I should bother mentioning it. But I've been a part of this work long enough to know that, while they are very nice, they are also somewhat necessary to building a body of work online.

Let these flames continue to burn in my life because there is no way I thought I'd be here, at this time in my life, doing such things. 

*If you want to learn a bit more about the Athena Awards, this is directly from their website:

The ATHENA Leadership Award® was inspired by the goddess of Greek mythology known for her strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment—qualities embodied in the ATHENA Leadership Model®. The Award is unique in both scope---local, national and international---and the ATHENA mission upon which it is based. The ATHENA Leadership Award® is presented to a woman ---or man--- who is honored for professional excellence, community service and for actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills. Since the program’s inception in 1982, more than 6,500 exemplary leaders in over 500 communities have received the prestigious ATHENA Award in the United States, Bermuda, Canada, China, Greece, India, Russia, Unite Arab Emirates and United Kingdom. By honoring exceptional leaders, the ATHENA Leadership Award® Program seeks to inspire others to achieve excellence in their professional and personal lives.

ATHENA Leadership Award® Recipients are individuals who: 

  • Have achieved the highest level of professional excellence.
  • Contribute time and energy to improve the quality of life for others in the community.

 

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