Planting in a Drought

It is my daughter's 11th birthday. 

And, as she reminds us, she was born on Earth Day.

While we were anticipating some requests for technology or an overly priced gift, our daughter turned to us and said, "All I want for my birthday is to plant a garden." And so, with her grandmother, we went to our local garden store and let her have the run of the planting aisles. She picked the soil, the containers, the seeds, and supplies. When she celebrated with her few friends, they came over with gardening gloves, a bright purple watering can, and some sunscreen. 

We stayed up late that night, mixing soil and water and creating a mess in our dining room. We poked seeds into the containers and she crafted beautiful labels for each seed case. 

We laid them all on our dining room floor, eagerly awaiting for the sun to come out during an extended, dreary New England spring. 

I left for a business trip, carefully rolling my luggage between the cases of plants. As I rushed off to the airport, I saw patches of dirt still sprinkled along the dining room floor. 

After a few days, I came home and rolled my luggage back into the dining room. I was stunned by the little containers of dirt that now had bright, green, fragile sprigs. 

My work -- traveling and having difficult conversations about race, identity, privilege and power -- are much like these little plants. It's messy. It's dirty. You get covered with stuff. You take this tiny little seed -- some no bigger than a crumb -- and hope you tucked them into the right spot in the soil. Oh, and that soil? Yeah, it has to be good. It has to be soil that is full of nutrients. It has to be soil that is ready to accept this little seed. You have to water it. You have to give it just the right amount of sun. 

You have to not trample on it.

In our home, the conditions for those little plants were perfect. We paid attention to it -- just like we pay attention to issues of identity. We get dirty. We wait patiently. We believe that the seed will transform.

But, what happens when you plant in a drought? What happens when you plant, only to have it bulldozed? What happens when you water it just right but leave it out in the torrential rain? 

Identity work is hard. That's why I do it. I'm not afraid of talking about race or privilege or power. I know that others are. But, I am not. I am not afraid of the dirt and the hard work. I'm not afraid of the care that it takes to help things grow. 

I plant in a drought.

I plant these seeds of knowledge, even when they are tough, because I believe in what's to come. I believe in the fruit of this labor. 

While there are people who are content throwing poison on the plants, or who fail to have patience to see what will grow, I still plant. 

The other night, I went to a concert featuring my friend, Tom Smith. And, he played this song. It hit so close to home that I had to force myself not to listen. In a room of strangers, I wasn't ready to cry or sway or break down - even though this song does that so easily to me. I needed to come home, listen to it privately, and just let it wash over me. 

Plant in a drought. Plant even when the machines are buzzing and whirring ready to destroy your work. Plant. Plant and believe that there is life in this work. 

Peace and planting,

Liza

 

 

FIRED UP, READY TO GO

I'm cutting it real close here. 

In just a few hours, Barack Obama and his family will leave the White House. I wrote this back in 2009 and re-read it today. It was a hopeful letter to my children - one in which I acknowledged that this would be a different America than what I had grown up in. And, in many ways, it was different. 

In many ways, it was still the same.

But, as I try to stay positive today, at a time when this social and political climate has permeated through my work, home, public and private, and parenting life, I am choosing to continue to be inspired by the past eight years. 

It has shown me that leadership matters.

As a practitioner who works in diversity, equity and inclusion, I know all too well that leadership matters. Both my own and of those around me. 

As many of my colleagues who do this work have experienced, there are times when fighting for equity and inclusion is too much to bear. There are times when the actions -- or inactions -- of others around you impact the world you hope for yourself and others. There are times when you are asked to compromise your morality, to slow down your walk, and tread lightly. 

But, justice work is not about treading lightly. Justice and equity work is about seeing the lives of those who are most marginalized and oppressed and not giving up until they, in their full humanity, can participate in whatever structures exist. Justice and equity and inclusion work is about taking steps, it's about taking action, and it's about honoring the dignity of others through real change. 

There are days when the wall is too tall, too big, and too ominous. There are days when I feel like I have scaled the wall, only to see it get bigger and wider. There are days when I look at the builder squarely in the face and decide if I'm going to crawl back down or keep climbing. 

Behind my desk, I have a giant framed poster of Audre Lorde. Her quote says, "When I dare to be powerful -- to use my strength in service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."

My real decisions to step away from this work isn't based on fear, though. It's based on anger. Frustration. Disbelief in the purposes of pausing. 

In acts of self-care, I tell myself, "That's enough. I'm not doing this work anymore." 

In acts of self-righteousness, I tell myself, "I can do better than this. I'm going to go where the work is wanted."

In acts of self-preservation, I tell myself, "I can focus my energies on other things."

But, time and again, my moral compass keeps me due north. As far as I walk and stray off path, I'm called back to the road.

It is in those times when I know that diversity, equity, inclusion and justice work is not just a job for me. It's a purpose. It's my life's purpose.

Damn if I'll be swayed from it. 

I'll hold this same calling that the Obama family and the Biden family had when they were faced with unbelievable adversity. They dusted off their shoes and showed back up to work. 

If my parents can travel halfway across the world and make a life for themselves and their generations, I can keep pushing on. 

If my in-laws can boldly preach the Word of God at a time when the world doesn't seem to be focused on love, I can keep faithful. 

If examples around me can show up each day, I can continue to be an example.

We have a hard road ahead for us as we fight for equity, inclusion and justice. 

And, I'm all fired up. 

So, are you Fired Up and Ready to Go? Watch here as we get started!

 

Peace and love, 

Liza

WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

It usually happens the same way.

He makes eye contact. I make eye contact in return. He smiles. I smile. He waves. I wave. He says, "Hello ma'am, can you spare some change?" I know my wallet is empty, and I say, "I'm sorry, sir. But, God bless you. Please be safe out here."

The light turns green. I creep forward. I leave.

This probably happens to me a few times a month. And, depending on where you live, maybe this happens a few times a week. Maybe a few times a day.

Now, I admit. This story typically ends. I leave feeling sadness at this person's condition. I leave feeling angry at the system that forced or created or positioned or led him to homelessness. And, I drive away patting myself on the back for acknowledging his humanity, for looking him in the eyes, for smiling, for waving, and for sending him off with a Christian blessing. 

I'm a good person, right?

Yes, the answer is yes. But, by God, what more can I be doing?

On occasion, I create little care bags that I keep in my car. Most often it's a granola bar and a juice box. Sometimes it's a baggie of a few dollars, some food, some warm gloves and clean socks. But, once I run out, I rarely purchase more. 

The other day, my family and I were in a hotel lobby eating breakfast. A gentleman came in and called for our attention. "Good morning, sir. Good morning, ma'am." We said "good morning." Then, we looked away. 

"Can you spare some change? Spare some coffee?"

I wasn't paying for that breakfast. It was already free. Yet, I sat still in my seat. I averted my eyes. I turned away. I started a conversation with my son who was, frankly, not paying attention to me. 

I distracted myself from this man's humanity.

"Ma'am. Hello? Can you spare some money?"

"No, sir. I'm sorry. God bless you. Be safe out there."

Within a minute, the staff of the hotel came out. They politely reminded him to leave, saying that he couldn't keep doing this every weekend. 

He left.

We all breathed. Be not mistaken, it was a sigh of relief.

An awkward 10 seconds passed. That felt like the longest 10 seconds of my life. I knew what was right, and yet I did nothing.

Though the staff didn't want us to give him any food, I could have walked over to the snack area and purchased some food for him. I could have offered to pay for his meal. I could have invited him to sit down with us. 

My husband? He followed the man outside. 

When he returned, the staff member asked, "Did you give him some food?"

My husband replied, "No, I told him that the church on the corner has a food pantry." That church was once run by my husband's father. 

We finished breakfast, went upstairs to shower, and we walked to church.

Even writing this is disturbing to me. What brought me to the point of ignoring another human being? Who had I become? Who am I? How can I turn away a human being and then walk myself to church to praise God and preach the word and love of Jesus? 

I'd like to be able to say that I then did something awesome.

I didn't.

I never saw that man again. But, I know, every week, I'll see another person in the same situation.

I went to work the next day and prepared for a presentation I was giving on upstander behavior (sense the irony yet?). I came across this "What would you do?" video and I am reminded that even we "good people" are flawed. Even we "good people" separate ourselves from the humanity of others. Even we "good people" have a lot of ourselves to see in others.

I'm writing this because I know the importance of acknowledging uncomfortable moments -- ones where we are deficient. I know that, in order for me to do better in this world, I have to acknowledge when I have done worse. 

What would you do?

Peace and love, 

Liza

Translator

Are you familiar with Luther

I'm talking about Luther, "the anger translator" by actor and comedian Keegan-Michael Key. 

Because, y'all. That is certainly what doing diversity, equity and inclusion work feels like. 

Now, I'm not talking about the necessary and exciting discourse and disagreement. It is important that we disagree and it is important to have people disagree with me. It is important that we seek people who are different from us, who have different ideas, and who challenge our own ways of thinking. My own friend group (and I'll include social media friend groups in there, too) are filled with people from different religions, faith traditions (or none at all), gender and gender identities, class and socioeconomic backgrounds, races and ethnicities, countries of origin, and political beliefs.

Yes, even political beliefs. Yes, even during these times. 

These different identities are found among people in my own family, my work friends, folks I've met out on the road, high school classmates, graduate school scholars, lifelong friends I've made through my children, and friends who I've met through different life experiences.  

Rest assured, while many of my close friend circle do share similar views as me (give or take a few degrees to the left or right), I also have many close friends in my life who couldn't be more different ideologically, who are so far on the right or left of the political spectrum that it's hard to even see each other sometimes. But, they are in my life, and I love them. (I admit, I did draw the line with anyone who was openly cheering for some of the most vitriolic phrases or sentiments we have heard in the past year. Those people had to go.)

How are we able to coexist? (1) We listen to each other.  (2) We disagree respectfully. (3) We have taken the time to explore why we think the way that we do. (4) We have learned how our individual life journey's have brought us to where we are today. (5) We know that, though we may disagree on a few powerful issues, we hold each other's humanity at the forefront of it all.

Now, I don't know all of the details of all 1,400+ Facebook friends; but I do know that they are all people who, in their own lives, have dedicated themselves to those five practices. And, among my friends in this circle, we disagree on some very personal issues: we disagree on abortion issues; we disagree on gender identity; we disagree on sexual orientation -- all three topics that can find their foundation in powerful faith. Recently, I had posted on Facebook that I wanted to start the new year knowing who of those 1,400 I was actually engaging with. I read tons of posts by at least a few hundred different people, and I wanted to get a sense of who was interested in what I was writing. I heard from lots of folks, predictably, who shared similar ideas as I had. But a few had written, "Liza, we disagree on most things. And, that is important. Hoping to stay on and reading your posts because it's important for me to know different perspectives." #loveit 

But, what happens when I'm faced with someone who cannot bring themselves to a place of understanding about difference. It may bring you hope and comfort to know just how rare I run into this scenario. I mean, in 20 years of doing very visible work in areas of justice, I've certainly "seen it all." But, in 20 years, I have only run into a dozen or so people who have escalated their dismay for discourse into hatred. 

And, you may be surprised at this: in my 20 years of doing this work, of the dozen or so who I have encountered, I have only run into 1-2 people who I would say were true racists or homophobes or who were just legitimately anti-diversity. I have only run into 1-2 people who were there to prove their point that Whites were superior or that gay people were going to hell.

So, who are the other 10? The other 10 have been people who have started with "I'm not racist.. but..." or who have told me that their "daughter's Asian boyfriend" or "former roommate who was gay" or "because I grew up poor" and then jumped into racially loaded or homophobic or classist rants. They have said, "I love that my child has classmates of other races, but I just don't want my child learning about them." Or, they have said, "I know being colorblind isn't a good thing, but neither is talking about diversity so much." Or they have said, "I have wonderful gay friends who are good people, but I just don't want my child to know about those other kinds of gays." 

See what's happening there? They like diversity; they just don't like inclusion or equity. And, see how there is a predictable pattern of speech? Say pro-diversity thing then say anti-diversity thing.

Those are the days my inner dialogue is Luther. 

Those are the days, as a professional, when I have had to let people get closer to me than I am comfortable (a woman once put her hand so close up to my face, she was within an inch of striking me in the nose). Those are the days, as a professional, when I have to restrain myself from telling a person to "fix her face" as she glared at me, pursing her lips to hard that I was convinced she was building up enough spit to send one nasty ball hurling towards me across the conference table. Those are the days, as a professional, when I have to meet the anger with the greatest basket of compassion, knowing full well that the same courtesy is not reciprocated to me as woman of color. Those are the days, as a professional, when I have to silently repeat over and over again in my head "She lacks information" even when the person is questioning my very credentials and perpetuating myths and falsehoods. These tend to be folks who know enough not to be a human resources liability and who know enough to fit in.

I wake up every day recommitting myself to this work. I know that, despite hearing every so often that another person is "tired of diversity" or thinks we "put too much diversity in the curriculum" or that "talking about race actually makes people more racist," I know firsthand of the successes of inclusion. I carry 20 years of stories with me of people who have felt validated, heard, and who feel like they belong because of something good we had done for them. 

There isn't much I can do for the 1-2 people who are so firm in their anti-diversity beliefs. My hope and prayer is that they'll come to it in their own time and that no one gets hurt in the process. I'm never really sure what to do with the folks who speak in such strong levels of contradiction -- who know enough to sound like they are committed to diversity but who simply hate the notion that diversity and inclusion take work. 

I will say that, of those 10 or so, their friend group is largely homogenous. 

I travel around the country talking a lot about identity and sense of self. And, much of what I emphasize is that who we are is important to what we believe. 

I'll end by saying I'm grateful for the folks who have invested lots of time in exploring their own relationship to identity. I have experienced your ally behavior and am encouraged by communities that you contribute to each day. I am grateful for people who seek to understand differences in opinions and approaches and who are willing to engage in productive dialogues. 

I'll continue to be professional in times when I'm required to do so. And, I'll continue to keep my good sense of Luther-the-Translator humor as I ride this bumpy ride called justice. 

 

Peace and love, 

Liza

WHAT'S YOUR PLAN?

Alright, this might upset some folks. To which I ask you to reflect on why this is upsetting for you to read (c'mon, you knew I was going to ask that!).

It's about that safety pin you just bought and are about to pin on your shirt. 

First, thank you. Thank you for signaling your support and your commitment to being a safe person for anyone who feels or may feel targeted by the racist, homophobic, ableist, and all the other horrific acts of violence going on. 

And, now I need to be clear. 

If you know me or have been following my writing, you must know that I don't believe in performative allyship  -- that is, the act of showing support without actually knowing what that support looks like. I don't believe in changing my profile picture with a country's flag superimposed on it; I don't believe in just hanging up a "safe space" sticker or card; and I don't believe in pinning a safety pin on my lapel UNLESS I'm willing to take action. I don't change my profile picture to a flag because, frankly, I haven't done anything to ally with people in France or Nigeria beyond reading articles and blog posts. There isn't a single person in country that has experienced violence who is sitting at home thinking, "That Liza, she's really shown up for me and my people in this international violence." I haven't. I want to believe that I am emotionally committed to global equality, but there is no one who has gifted me with label "global ally."

I do feel comfortable having  a Safe Space sticker, but only because people within the LGBTQ have told me that I have demonstrated a commitment to their issues, done work to educate myself and others, and have actively worked to dismantle oppressive structures that have impacted their community. That safe space sticker reminds me of that commitment and the work that I need to continue doing.

I'm not interested in performing allyship. 

I'm interested in actually allying through my every day actions. 

Let me give you an example of why this whole pin thing is difficult for me. 

Over the past 3 days, I have heard about and read about people -- who I know personally and who I don't know -- who have experienced physical, verbal and emotional violence. If someone were to throw eggs at me while I'm on a walk with my children or yell for me to go back to my country or verbally harass me on a subway train, you know what I will be doing? I'll be freaking out. Know what I won't be doing? I won't be looking around for a person wearing a safety pin on their shirt. 

I won't be looking for your safety pin; I'll be looking for a safe escape route.

I won't be looking for your safety pin; I'll be reaching for the keys in my pocket in case I have to defend myself.

I won't be looking for your safety pin; I'll be looking for my child's hand to grab and to protect them, possibly through flight or possibly through fight.

I won't be looking for your safety pin; I'll be looking for a place to throw up after the adrenaline courses through my body. 

Friends, your safety pin does not help me.

But, I hope it does help you. I mean that sincerely. 

I hope that your safety pin reminds you that many of us have felt pricked and stabbed by the rise in assaults against us and our communities. 

I hope that your safety pin reminds you to take action when you see someone being harassed. 

I hope that safety pin holds the witty comments you'll say when you see me frozen in my chair and receiving verbal assaults. 

I hope that your safety pin gives you some sort of confidence to intervene when someone is being yelled or screamed at on a train, on a sidewalk, in a restaurant, or in class. 

I hope that your safety pin holds you accountable for the promise you have decided to make when you put it on. 

I hope that your safety pin sends you on a personal journey of unpacking the decades of racism and racist agenda that has been the foundation of this country. 

I hope that your safety pin gives you the strength to respond when someone says to you, "Nice fucking pin, asshole."

I hope you are strong enough to not hide the pin under your jacket or under your scarf when you are outside in public, only to reveal it when you get to your liberal, progressive, and socially accepting workplace. After all, there are many of us who don't get to choose how we show up in these spaces. We hold marginalized identities whether we are in our socially just community and when we are at the local grocery store. 

I hope that your safety pin is just the beginning.

I hope that your safety pin reminds you of your plan -- the plan you will enact when you witness all of the above taking place.

I hope that safety pin includes a plan -- your individual plan -- for action and reaction. 

I hope you look at yourself in the mirror when you put that safety pin on and practice all of the things you'll say or the looks you'll give or the way you'll hold your body when it's time to ally with others. 

So, what's your plan?

Is the safety pin something you'll just wear because it's the right thing to do? Or is the safety pin the thing you'll do right?

Peace, 

Liza