activism, Children, Take Action

Reluctant Hero

Mendez Piano
Courtesy of the Mendez Family

Sylvia Mendez was nine years old when she became the center of the landmark court case, Mendez v. Westminster. Parents and neighbors joined together in a fight to desegregate education for children of Mexican descent in southern California. The 1947 court decision banned segregation in California public schools and paved the way for the national ban on school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education seven years later.

On her first day at school after winning the case, Sylvia recalls a white boy coming up to her and telling her she didn’t belong. She says, “I was crying and crying, and told my mother, ‘I don’t want to go to the white school!’ My mother said, ‘Sylvia, you were in court every day. Don’t you know what we were fighting? We weren’t fighting so you could go to that beautiful white school. We were fighting because you’re equal to that white boy.” (LA Times)

Mendez Book
 Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (2014, Abrams Books)

It’s easy to hold up these historic figures as superhuman. It seems they are made of sturdier stuff than us average folk. But Sylvia Mendez was herself a reluctant hero. Her name was on that important decision, but she didn’t feel brave and fierce.

Maybe her connections to her family and her community mattered to her more than the abstract idea of equality. And maybe it was from the strength of those connections that Sylvia drew her sense of purpose.

Sylvia went on to a successful career as a pediatric nurse. For decades, Sylvia didn’t think much about Mendez v. Westminster. Then her father died and her mother became very ill. In a conversation about the case, her mother told her, “It’s history of the United States, history of California. Sylvia, you have to go out and talk about it!” Hesitant at first but guided by her mother’s conviction, Sylvia began vising schools to tell the story of her family’s fight for civil rights.

Since her retirement from nursing, Mendez’ work has grown into a nationwide effort to help students succeed. She sees the de facto segregation that still exists in American education today, particularly in the scarce resources of schools in poor communities and communities of color. She wants all students have the opportunity that she did, and she has dedicated herself to advocating for educational equity.

Mendez Medal
In 2011 Sylvia Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama

Behind most hero myths lurks a story of uncertainty, hesitancy, and detours. Something propels (or drags) the protagonist to the path they are meant to walk. Mendez’ connections to her family called her back to courage.

For each of us, such a force exists. Maybe hidden, maybe silent, likely disquieting, most certainly mighty.

In what voice does it call us back?

Do we let it?


Mendez vs. segregation: 70 years later, famed case ‘isn’t just about Mexicans. It’s about everybody coming together’.  Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, LA Times, April 17, 2016

The Mendez Family Fought School Segregation 8 Years Before Brown v. Board of Ed. Dave Roos, History.com, September 18, 2019

Who Is Sylvia Mendez? Separate is Never Equal, Sylvia Mendez School

 

 

activism, memory, prayer, race, Take Action

Pilgrimage: Montgomery, Alabama

20191226_110119.jpg
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Montgomery, Alabama. An unexpected pilgrimage.

When the US Congress outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, domestic trafficking of humans exploded. Montgomery’s railroad and river trade quickly became a grim, teeming market for enslaved people. Traders paraded chained humans up Commerce Street to the center of town, and auctions took place in the direct line of site of the state capitol at the top of Dexter Avenue. By the 1850’s, Alabama’s capital was only the 75th largest city in the country but it had the second largest population of slaves.

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activism, Children, community, race, Take Action

Whose Life Matters: Privilege, Policing, and the Distribution of Trauma

cop holding baby 2

One block from home after a Black Lives Matter event, blue strobes flash in the rearview mirror. The irony does not escape me. I bend to pull my wallet from under the seat. Beyond irony, a stunning privilege. I feel around the floor. My hand closes around leather. I pry it out and set it on the passenger seat.

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Learning, Poetry, race

Privilege Play

Cartier-Bresson Boys Guns

My son in the dark
with a Nerf gun rebuilt
using power drill
and silver paint
darts between houses
and flattens into shadow
while I walk the dog
twenty paces behind
performing solitude
first
and then alarm
as he springs
from between parked cars
and levels his sights
certain
all of us will make it
home
alive


Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson (1935)

community, race, Take Action, Writing

The Question of Courage

typewriter if not now

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

– Audre Lorde

What keeps me from writing about racial justice? What stands in the way of articulating both the inequities in higher education and a vision for building structures of inclusion? While the fear of getting it wrong looms large, looking foolish worries me far less than doing harm. What I write could galvanize those who prefer white campuses and the insidious myths of individualism and meritocracy.

Back in November, an Admissions officer at the university where I work shared his reactions to the election on his personal Facebook page. His harsh post went viral, prompting conservatives across the blogosphere to point to his words as evidence of “liberal intolerance” propped up by the higher education system. This one employee’s private views became fodder for efforts across the country to gut inclusion initiatives. This is not hyperbole. Remember when the Tennessee legislature voted in April to cut all funds for the university’s diversity office?

At my Unitarian Universalist church, we’ve been grappling with a similar constellation of concerns. A polarized national climate has illuminated the deep and widening fractures in our communities. The choices we make matter. Each time we come together, we have a new opportunity to understand and undo the structures of white supremacy in our traditions and in our congregation.

Indeed, every setting in which we find ourselves offers up avenues for taking steps on racial justice.

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Career, community, Learning, Purpose

Showing Up for Public Research

Frank Morrison A Student

One of the many benefits of working in higher education is easy access to learning opportunities. On any given day, a dozen activities show up on the calendar. Anyone on campus, and usually community folks too, can drop in on brown bags, seminars, conferences, performances, or dissertation defenses. Cost and distance are taken care of, so the only limiting factors are motivation and time.

I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this abundance as I could, but does this surprise anyone? I’m guessing others out there don’t read poetry or clock enough hours of sleep, both of which gratify a tired soul. As often as not, we fail to act as champions of our own happiness. Sometimes laziness leads the charge. Halfheartedly, of course.

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activism, Change, community

Beyond Belief: #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn

BlackLivesUU

We believe that hundreds of UU churches signaling to their own members and to the larger community that “our faith takes racism seriously, especially within our own walls” will push our faith toward the beloved community we all seek.

Black Lives of UU

On Sunday, my Unitarian Universalist congregation participated in the first #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn. This began as a call to action by Black Lives of UU for congregations around the country the dedicate one day of services to teaching about racism and white supremacy. Our worship team took the charge seriously, shifting not only the content of the service but the very structure of how we gather together. A new seating arrangement brought everyone face-to-face. Without the familiar printed order of service to guide us, we watched videos of anti-racist leaders like Tricia Rose, and worshiped in the company of art and music by people of color. Most notably, our pastors made unflinching use of the term “white supremacy.”

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activism, Change

Up to Here with Liberal White Women

Mauro Malang Santos

Racism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change.

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

Last night at an event focused on building support for immigrant communities, every single participant was a white person.

At a meet-and-greet at a local bar for Virginia Democratic Lieutenant Governor candidates, almost every participant a white woman.

At all the discussions of racial and social justice in my Unitarian Universalist congregation, the attendees are predominantly white people.

At an interfaith vigil that took place after the local JCC and UCC were vandalized with Nazi symbols and hate speech, all but a few attendees were white people.

At the university where I work, a place nationally recognized for the diversity of its student body, the faculty and staff meetings in my department are comprised almost entirely of white people.

At the local Huddle, every attendee is a white woman.

At the “Love Lives Here” family parade in response to Richard Spencer setting up shop in Alexandria, almost all protestors were white people.

At a dialogue hosted by the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution to bridge the post-election divide, all but two of the student organizers and one student participant were white people.

At the Kitchen Conversations at my house, eight of ten participants were white women.

Anyone see a pattern here?

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community, Love, neighborhood

This Can Happen Here

chagall dreams

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

– Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4

Someone vandalizes a church and a Jewish community center in Northern Virginia. They paint swastikas on buildings and dark words over a sign supporting Muslims. This happens on the first night of Passover, at the start of the Christian holy week. The story is here.

Then the police track down a suspect. Dylan Mahone is a 20-year-old man who has found his way into white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles. A student at the community college. A neighbor who lives just blocks from the house my former partner shares with his two kids. A young man whose Facebook page drips with racism and hate and noxious fantasies of violence.

White. Christian. Educated. Male.

One of ours. One of us.

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