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Understanding & Analyzing Systemic Racism: A Seminar Recap


I often ask myself the question that seems to permeate every part of my pedagogy in American public education: who is this for? It's simple at the outset, but, when answering it, I find myself at an intersection of American pathology that is fraught with complications and, more importantly, American history. I'm native to a complicated membership of a working class that's known both desperate levels of poverty as well as upper education struggling within the middle class. Living there, then, means that while I'm able to go to the grocery store and purchase whatever I want there is a lingering and aching part of me that remembers saving pennies found in the couches of my friends so that I could make the ends meet. 

All of that is seen through the lens of a person who also critically recognizes race. It is not a popular place to be, but I'm comfortable there now.

Last week I took part in an important conversation not just in my city but within the confines of the school district for which I work. It's crucial to note that it wasn't an accident. I might go so far as to admit that I lobbied for this, both in my writing and the important work of institutionalized racism. The topical racism which has become a momentous conversation in the United States scratches the surface of what we're truly built on, but it seems that if one permits entry into that discussion one is, somehow, less patriotic.

I call shenanigans on that.

The seminar, put on by CrossRoads Antiracism Organizing & Training, put things into perspective for me and other participants in a way I have never before experienced at a conference. That was, of course, the point. Led by Robette Dias (a member of the Karuk Indian Tribe in California) we went through a number of activities that helped us see America as she truly is: an Apartheid nation built with a framework of a European Colonialism power structure that never lets us forget who wants the power and what lengths they're willing to go through to keep it.

That's a strong sentence, I know. But, if we're going to talk about institutional racism we have to remember that racism is the enemy and the enemy uses pawns to complete the work.

One of the tools used by CrossRoads is to create an unabridged version of American history in an exercise called The Wall of History. Four large sections of wall were used by the audience to note the building of our nation from the knowledge of the participants. We didn't use our smart phones or Google to come up with what we've learned but rather worked together to create a comprehensive list of our knowledge of the past. It helps, therefore, to have educated people in the room with you. For example, when asked about the year that the first enslaved African was kidnapped and brought to the shores of this country, I was grateful that Kathryn Harris (whom I have written about before here and here) was sitting at my table. She's an African-American research librarian who has just retired from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. (As luck would have it, she and I keep running into one another since then.)

"1619," she shouted out through the silence of the room. No one else knew that answer off the top of their heads when Robette asked the question.

Robette reminded us of the name of the ship that brought him here: Jesus. And, I thought, "Jesus. Really?" (Named both The Good Ship Jesus and Jesus of Lubeck.)

The 4 quadrants were broken down into categories so we didn't fit too much on each wall. The top portion was for us to name racism/racist practices and laws that helped build this nation. On the bottom, we later put resistance to racism. If you don't think American nation building is important or why there's such resistance to teaching history then look no further at why libraries were the first things to be burned down when a conquering culture tried to take over.

1492-1790 European Colonialism and U.S. Nation Building

1790-1954 U.S. Apartheid, Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism

1954-1973 Movement Time

1973-present Criminalization, Racist Multiculturalism, Color Blindness, "Post-Racial"

I should stop to mention that there were multiple institutions in that room. Education (both public and parochial), media, a medical school contingency, a local public university, and city organizers. It was hosted by the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism (SCoDR) in the Sacred Heart Convent and one of the Dominican Sisters, Sister Marcelline, has pushed for this work for years.

In a sincere moment, I pulled Sister Marcelline aside and asked, "Why do you do this work? I mean, why is antiracism so important to you?" and she promptly answered, "Because, as a Sister, I'm involved with social justice." She actually continued on for quite a bit detailing the work that's important to her as a follower of Jesus and I told her that she could have left it at that one sentence and I would have understood. 

Back in January, my father saved an article from our local independent newspaper, Illinois Times, because he wanted me to read about the work the church is doing (he's a die-hard Catholic who found a church quickly once he moved here) and he asked me if I knew some of the people mentioned in the article. I hadn't, but I got to meet them during this 3-day training.

Doing the work of anti-racism is where I am right now. For the last 10 years of writing online my writing has morphed into doing this work and not just the calling out of racism. This work, institutional work, is where we break down the barriers that intersect race and gender and class. It's not binary work, either, as discussions and caucuses moved us into groups of White/European and People of Color. Robette, being a Native American, got us to think about this country as a practice/culture of Apartheid but she also mentioned that the colonialism for Natives still hasn't ended.

"They still haven't left," she said dryly during our discussion. It was a salient argument in a sobering moment.

When people ask me what they can do, and those questions come with more frequency than ever before, this is what I want to tell them to do. Get your organization or institution this training. Get your politicians to look at our history and how we continue to perpetuate racism as policy in this country so we can have honest conversations about change. Get to de-constructing this national practice so we can move forward.

Honestly, we can't do it without this framework.

Image credit to Vicki Davis


Virtual Field Trip: Wild Biomes

This is a sponsored post. However, my passion for education and global water concerns are, as always, my own.

I am supremely disappointed in my inability to grow things in a sustainable manner. It's not entirely my fault, though, because I grew up learning how to fix things and cook so that's my wheelhouse. When I first became a homeowner I envied the manicured lawns and flowers my neighbors kept but instead of trying to grow anything, I bought potted plants that lasted only as long as I remembered to water them.

This house, though, the one that I share with The Cuban, is laid out in such a way that makes it possible for sunlight to hit it just right for a nice garden. You'd think I would have a nice one, but weeding is truly a pain and one that I grumble through as a chore each summer. We've tried growing some food but with the woods so close to our house the bunnies ate everything or the bugs got it and the weeds OH MY GOD ALL THE WEEDS. 

I freely admit that I fail at such things.

However, this year we're trying hydroponics and we're not doing it outside at all. The Cuban is spearheading this and building things and he made a bell siphon to keep the water flowing. It's all very complicated and I'd explain it but I do best just eating the tomatoes and cilantro and rosemary he's growing. It's our own little biome but not really, you know? (See? I told you I shouldn't explain those things.)


But, do you know what time it is? It's time for another VIRTUAL field trip.

I truly enjoy sharing these because you can do it at home or in your classroom. You don't even have to pack a bag for this.

The Nature Conservancy's Nature Works Everywhere's is planning a live Google Hangout for grade 3-8 classrooms focusing on comparing and contrasting the role of water and how it works in two dramatically different biomes – the rainforests Washington State and the desert in Arizona. Students can learn how water affects and is affected by the people, animals and plants in these two distinctive ecosystems. (So, a bit different than our homemade hydroponics.)



The Virtual Field Trip - Wild Biomes: From America’s Rainforest to America’s Desert

If you're a classroom teacher, here are the bare bones details:

  • On April 8, 2015 at 12 pm ET, The Nature Conservancy is putting on a virtual field trip they've titled Wild Biomes: From America’s Rainforest to America’s Desert. The Nature Conservancy’s senior hydrologist on The Nature Conservancy’s Global Water team will be teaching the science behind how people and nature can work together.


  • Teachers and parents can sign up to take part in the virtual field trip here: 


  • Why sign up? The aim of this virtual field trip is to build students’ knowledge of and emotional connection to environmental issues that are at the heart of The Nature Conservancy’s mission. 



  • For teachers: The Nature Conservancy and NatureWorksEverywhere are excellent classroom resources for science and geography.

Tomorrow, my own 6th grade students are participating in our culminating project on sustainable and clean water. We do this every year in order to learn how water affects people and how clean water is a problem in many developing countries. In fact, this field trip is a natural extension of what my own students are doing because it also looks at how people affect water. They've learned where their water comes from already and that globally we have a water crisis. 

On the field trip, students will get to hear from Kari Vigerstol, the senior hydrologist on The Nature Conservancy’s Global Water team from Seattle. It's hosted by Tyler DeWitt who will introduce the field trip, interview Kari, and take questions from students. Since it's virtual, we'll travel to the lush, rain-soaked splendor of the Olympic Peninsula and explore the urban watershed of Seattle. While they get a lot of water, the challenge is keeping it safe and clean. Next, we’ll head to Arizona’s dry, desert landscape and take a tour down the Verde River, one source of water that nourishes this parched land. Here, people and other living things must adapt to a limited water supply, yet sudden and violent storms can dump seven inches of rain in a single night.

Teachers may want to pre-teach some vocabulary that's necessary to understanding just how nature and water work with people. During the chat, there will be a couple of students asking questions of the experts. These Key Concepts and Terms will get students started:


Tune in for our live Google hangout at 12:00 pm (EST) on April 8, 2015, to find out how geography, people, and water interact in two of America’s “wildly” unique biomes. It's 40 minutes long, and my students and I will be there. Join us! Maybe sometime in the near future, I'll show you how those tomatoes and cilantro and rosemary turn out.

Supplementary materials:

How Natural Areas Filter Water  

Managing Salmon to Support Healthy Forests  

Gardens Activity Guide: Water  

You can learn more about Tyler by watching his TED talk on making science fun and visiting his YouTube Channel 


Eden Project 09-10-2007 via photopin (license) Rainforest Dome via photopin (license)


Before the Good Guys Were Liked: Dr. King’s Untold Stories

This is part three of a sponsored post series with Wells Fargo.

In my lifetime everyone has always referred to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a hero. He has, to my knowledge, always been revered, there’s always been a holiday honoring him, and there’s always been a monument dedicated to his legacy. When I got the whole story, however, I was shocked that I didn’t know all the untold stories.

By the time I got to college I learned about the FBI spying on him, his reported infidelities, and how much he was hated during his lifetime.

In case you don’t know about any of those things in my previous paragraph, feel free to watch the brilliant film SELMA by director Ava DuVernay that was released last month. Due to her vision and the way she directed it, you won’t be able to leave the theatre and forget that Dr. King was a watched man by the FBI.

In 2011, Gallup Poll did a survey looking at the popular opinion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the time when the marches and protests were taking place. At the time, Dr. King was considered radical for his ideas and his pushback on people he should have expected support from but didn’t get. In May of 1963 37% of those polled found him to be “unfavorable” and 25% of those polled found him to be “highly unfavorable”. Naturally, there’s been a shift in the public opinion about Dr. King with many hailing him as a Civil Rights “hero” with a national holiday and monument dedicated to him. 

Yet, what about the polls throughout the 1960s questioning his popularity? Were the marches and protests and speeches he made successful or did he hit popularity low? Are the stories we tell our children a fair representation or should we discuss the radical, disastrous parts as well?

Looking back on American history, it’s easy to see how the narratives of Black men and women have been shaped, but we’ve done an unfair job of showing the North as more ‘progressive’ than the South. While Selma became a famous march and his I Have a Dream became his most famous speech, Dr. King encountered plenty of wrath in his time.

Some of the untold history of Dr. King’s work rests on failed protests and counter-protests. Beginning in 1965, Dr. King began to focus on housing issues in Chicago, an issue that many found more unpalatable than simply riding an integrated bus. While marching through Marquette Park with other protestors about the unfair housing laws, King said this became the most ugly encounter with counter-protestors that he’d even seen. 


There was massive resistance from Whites in the North, thousands of whom came out to scream and hurl objects at the non-violent group that included Dr. King as they marched throughout the Southwest and Northwest sides of Chicago. The protests were to oppose discriminatory ordinances barring rental or purchasing property, something systemic racism has perpetuated for so long that the legacy of that cycle continues to be a struggle. 

About his time in Chicago, King said, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago. I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

While the Chicago Freedom Movement wasn’t as successful as the marches in Birmingham and Selma, they weren’t total failures. The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities came out of this movement, which put the focus on housing discrimination, something that long needed to be corrected as it was systemic policy.

Dr. King was vehemently disliked over his anti-war sentiments as well, but the prevailing thought at the time was that his work should be singular in nature and focus on singular issues. However, he was fighting for a variety of aspects of the marginalized lives of Blacks. Workers’ rights, unions, anti-war, housing discrimination, voting rights. These were complicated issues that were built into the layered system of discrimination that the Civil Rights fought and continues to fight.

One would think that his colleagues of the cloth would be supportive of the Reverend King, but many clergymen penned open letters to Dr. King criticizing his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They considered him an outside agitator who was a part of the “them” against their “us”. Though some ministers were affiliated with the SCLC, they still practiced xenophobic beliefs about his work. Responding to them in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. King supplied them with not only a moral impetus for his appearance at protests, but he pushed back on their privileged status. 

The way we’ve created narratives to justify and shape the way we look at the legacy of people who worked for the fight for Civil Rights isn’t as clear-cut as it should be. These untold, or not-told-as-much, stories are still a part of our history. The radical thing to do would be for us to look at it directly and keep peeling apart the privileged systems that favor some and punish others. The radical thing to do would be to continue to fight, even as unpopular as that is, because it’s still the right thing to do.

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Wells Fargo and The Untold Stories Collection. You can find their story gallery here, and share your own story. Make sure to use the hashtag #MyUntold when sharing on social media, and tag me so I can see it!

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