Sunday, March 12, 2017

Late Night Microaggressions at the Noodle Shop

Last night I snapped when a customer asked me for a knife.  I own a small mom and pop noodle shop nestled in a charming small town in central Kentucky.  We have chopsticks and Asian soup spoons available to customers, and forks upon request.  Occasionally, someone will ask for a knife to cut their noodles and typically, I’d just gently inform them that we don’t have any non-butcher knives on-site. 

But last night I snapped.

Eight months ago when I first left my 9-5 job and decided to create a space that allowed me to share my family’s recipes with my community, it never occurred to me that it was possible that I could be made to feel like a complete foreigner in my own space.  After all, I spent 20 years of my professional life being the only person of color in the room, trying to fit in, blend in, assimilate, and accommodate. It didn’t matter that it didn’t exist out there in the world, I would create my own beautiful space where people from different walks of life could sit around long family style tables and connect with one another over steamy bowls of noodles.   And since we opened, I’ve managed to do just that - we’ve served up over 25,000 noodle bowls to locals, adventurous foodies, weary interstate travelers, and tourists alike.   And most of the time they are happy.  

Most of the time.

The first time someone walked out of my shop after looking over the menu and failing to find marinara or Alfredo sauce as offerings, I told myself that Southeast Asian noodle bowls just weren’t for everyone.  When several members of the local Chamber of Commerce “passed” on my complimentary noodle samples at the ribbon cutting, I thought that perhaps they just ate and were too full to sample my offerings.  Every day I listen to customers tell me that I need to change my late grandmother’s 100-year old curry recipe by “simply” replacing a combination of 3 different kinds of authentic Thai soy-based seasonings with a single gluten-free one.  I don’t take it personally when people tell me to just give them the “normal” noodles when they want ramen, even though rice noodles are the most commonly used noodles in most Southeast Asian cultures. And when customers ask for “American” utensils when referring to forks, nine out of ten times, I just hand them one.  Even the positive on-line reviews often include the descriptor “clean” – as if we are the anomaly and the standards for Asian restaurants are anything but.  Perhaps the most challenging customer interaction I’ve had was last week when a particularly cranky elderly gentlemen (who had clearly been dragged there by his granddaughter) defiantly told me, “I’ve been to Thailand and there’s nothing good about that place” when I suggested he try our Pad Thai bowl.

This wasn’t the first time someone has asked for a knife.  People always seem flabbergasted that a restaurant, albeit a noodle shop, would not have forks and knives readily available for customers.  Of course they are also shocked when they learn that we don’t keep butter on the premises for their kids who “only eat buttered noodles.”  Somehow, our little noodle shop is expected to either operate like the Olive Garden or the local Chinese take-out joint.  Here are some actual comments I’ve heard in the last 8 months:  What kind of noodle shop doesn’t have cheese?  Doesn’t this come with any bread?  Which one is closest to spaghetti?  I wish you would offer those “crunchy noodles” to sprinkle over my soup.  Do you have hot mustard and duck sauce for the egg rolls (which are really spring rolls because they are made with a thinner, egg-free wrapper and stuffed with a different kind of filling)?   

Which brings me back to last night.  I won’t go into the details of the interaction, but let’s just say there was a general tone of condescension and arrogance in the way that I was addressed, and after quietly trying to accommodate these particularly hard-to-please customers for several minutes, I apparently reached the end of my rope when one of them got upset that I didn’t have any knives available.  And so I snapped. I guess it finally got to me.  My entire childhood consisted of me watching my parents eat their Kentucky Fried chicken with ketchup instead of hot sauce, and rolls instead of rice.  I watched my mom discreetly sneak in tiny Tupperwares of chili-infused, garlic fish sauce every time we went to Ponderosa because the A-1 and Heinz 52 just didn’t cut it for her.  I watched my dad slowly and skillfully learn to master eating with just a fork and knife when we were at fancier restaurants, even though at home he ate all of his meals with a fork and table spoon.  In other words, I spent my entire childhood learning how to fit into a specific cultural norm that wasn’t mine, and an entire adulthood politely following the rules of that norm, but God help me if I have to pretend to appease someone else’s norm in my own home.   

Microaggressions, as you may know, are defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”  Like most members of non-white communities, I’m used to experiencing microagressions on a daily basis, but my “home” is usually a safe space.  My home is usually a place where I can just be authentically me:  a second-generation American whose childhood comfort food was a noodle bowl rather than a bowl of mac and cheese.  My home is usually a place where I shouldn’t have to sit back and listen to someone tell me I’m weird, or odd, or strange because of the foods I grew up eating…or the manner in which I eat them.  My home is where my culture is not only celebrated, but is actually the norm.

Last night I snapped when a customer asked me for a knife.  I’m not proud of it, but it was a long time coming.

Note:  For every instance that I’m made to feel like a foreigner in my own home, there are a million instances that customers make me feel like family - by celebrating my mother’s cooking and choosing to join me at my dinner table every week. I am grateful for the 15-year old high school girl who invited ten of her friends to celebrate her birthday with us.  I am grateful for Berea College’s Appalachian Center, who invited us to cater a meal for a renowned Appalachian food critic because we represented the growing diversity in contemporary southern cuisine.  I’m grateful for our city’s tourism department who produced a beautiful marketing video telling our story, and for the urban farm for growing fresh greens for our noodle bowls.  I am grateful for every single customer who makes my home feel like theirs.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Review of the 2017 New Kentucky Project Ideas Conference

Why I Took My First Saturday Off (From My Brand New Business) To Attend.

I’ve been a Kentuckian for 26 years, since I first arrived as a freshman at Berea College back in 1991.  I’ve been a Democrat just as long.  Over the last couple of decades, my political involvement ranged from attending democratic fundraisers, campaigning door to door, serving as a delegate at the 2012 National Convention, applying (but later rescinding my application) to a democratic women’s leadership training program, and finally running for city council myself.  My temperament during that time ranged from  chills up and down my spine when we elected our first African-American president, to supporting the platform but turning a blind-eye to the candidate, and finally in recent years just having enough with state party politics period when I watched some democratic candidates refuse to align themselves with Barack Obama fearing pro-coal, racist backlash from potential constituents, while others defiantly spoke out against immigration, our own governor defending arguments against marriage equality, and pretty much every candidate refusing to go near the issue of mass incarceration and police brutality.  The Kentucky Democratic Party effectively confirmed to me that this was not a party for a brown, daughter of interfaith immigrant parents, who had a gay best friend, and who spent half of her career as a civil rights investigator. 

To say that I was done with politics as usual would be an understatement.   As state and national offices were slowly and steadily getting swept up by Republican candidates, it appeared that others in my state, perhaps for different reasons, also felt frustrated with the party.  So when that first press release appeared on my Facebook newsfeed back in 2016 announcing a new movement and direction for the state Democratic Party called the New Kentucky Project, I was cautiously optimistic but immensely hopeful.

You Had Me at Hello, Adam and Matt.

While the pep-rally-style charges at these things do little to inspire me, the line-up of speakers did catch my attention.  It helped that I wasn’t really looking for inspiration.  I was looking for structure.  A structure through which, I could become a part of effective organizing.  And a structure that perhaps this time, might include a diversity of voices and perspectives.
And so on this cold Saturday morning, over 600 people – that’s 300 over their expected attendance – filed into a banquet hall presumably ready for change.   I had crossed paths with our former state auditor and New Kentucky project founder, Adam Edelen just last year when I served as the executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center.  Adam and his team were instrumental in funding and addressing the rape kit backlog in our state.   I remember being impressed when he visited my center and spent time speaking with my staff as well as survivors, committing resources to implement changes that would address the backlog.  I believed him then, and I desperately wanted to believe him today when he boldly stated that this was a movement of ordinary people willing to speak their truths rather than pedigreed politicians calculating their every move.  I wanted to believe him when he proclaimed that democrats haven’t done enough to build human and intellectual capacity or to rebuild grassroots involvement.  I wanted to believe him when he laid out the core values of the New Kentucky Project:

  1. Every Kentuckian deserves equal protection under the law regardless of age, race, gender, religion or sexual orientation and it is the responsibility of Kentucky’s leaders to protect that opportunity for all its citizens.
  2. The focus of state politicians should be on creating jobs for its citizens and ensuring that all Kentuckians who seek to work for a living can earn a wage that allows them to support their families and live their lives with dignity. 
  3. Education should be our state's top priority and that investment in education for all is crucial for allowing us to compete in the new economy. Because education is the most critical investment we can make in our future, we must strive to create a modern, state-of-the-art educational system that can adapt to meet the new challenges of our global economy.
  4. All Kentuckians have the right to appropriate and affordable medical care in times of injury or sickness and that the goal of improving the health and treatment of all citizens is a top priority. 

By the time Kentucky Sports Radio founder and host, Matt Jones arrived at the podium, it seemed the crowd was ready to rumble.  As a co-founder of the New Kentucky Project, Matt’s style complimented Adam’s beautifully.  His call to action was less Bill Clinton and more Oprah Winfrey.  His heartfelt call to action appealed to the middle, calling for more cooperation between party lines and a commitment to better educate both sides about the issues that matter.

So exactly how were we going to achieve all of this?  Well, initially by having New KY representatives organizing in all 120 counties of Kentucky.  The project’s priorities would revolve around two things:
  • Candidate development – attracting and training every day ordinary, passionate people willing to speak their truths.
  • Unapologetically picking and leading conversations about key issues that matter to all Kentuckians, rather than letting distractions frame elections. 

What I Heard.

The demographics of Kentucky are changing. All growth in Kentucky is due to non-white populations and takes place along our interstates.  More people are dying than are being born.  Males in Kentucky are dying 10 years sooner than the national average.  (Ron Crouch, Kentucky’s leading demographer)

The coal industry is dying.  For every coal job there are three solar/wind jobs.  The majority of power plants in the U.S. are solar and wind based. (Kiran Bhataraju, CEO Arcadia Power)

We have a problem with heroin and incarceration is not a solution. (Steve Gold, Henderson County Attorney)

We need more jobs/training but not necessarily more higher education.  Two-thirds of Kentucky jobs only require a high school diploma.  (Jason Bailey, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy) Kentucky college graduates are struggling with life-time student loan debt and it’s negatively impacting our economy.  (Representative James Kay)

We must be at the forefront of technology in addressing these issues. (Drew Curtis,

We need to fight bad ideas, find a way to finance good ones, and communicate them directly to the people.  (Jason Bailey, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy)

We need to focus on the issues.  We need to choose the issues – education, healthcare, tax reform, living wage, fixing the pension. (Representative Chris Harris and Senator Morgan McGarvey)

We are who we’ve been waiting for. (Everyone)

We are who we’ve been waiting for. (Everyone)

We are who we’ve been waiting for. (Everyone)

What I Was Missing.

While our demographer stated that all future growth in Kentucky will be attributed to non-whites, of the 23 speakers on the agenda, 4 were non-white, and 1 of those was the host.  While the conference touched on issues that impacted all Kentuckians like health care and living wages, there was no mention of recent national legislation that could impact Kentucky immigrants.  While there was talk about the heroin epidemic in our rural communities, there was no talk about issues of drugs and violence in inner cities.   In fact, Representative Attica Scott was the only speaker that mentioned Black Lives Matter and immigrant and refugee rights.  Also, notably missing was any discussion about women’s health and reproductive rights, and only two speakers briefly mentioned issues impacting the LGBTQ community.   The crowd was predominantly white, to the point where one white attendee actually got up and asked, “Why aren’t more people of color here?  Don’t they care?”  Matt Jones quickly and graciously held himself and organizers accountable to creating spaces that are more welcoming and inclusive.  The only person on the agenda that was identified as a “Pikeville native” was someone with a South Asian name - Kiran Bhataraju, CEO of Arcadia Power.  During her campaign, one of the speakers on the stage was vocal about her support for our current President and his policies.  Perhaps in the future, if there were a commitment from the New Kentucky Project to adequately discuss issues that adversely affect people of color, while paying closer attention to unspoken (and perhaps unintended) microaggressions in the form of agenda language and speaker selection, people of color might feel more comfortable entering these historically white and privileged spaces.     

As the conference came to an end, most of us were fired up and ready to organize, but we were somewhat unclear as to what our next steps should be.  As someone who is comfortable steering the wheel, it was easy for me know what to do - offer my reflections to the organizers, thank them for their incredible work in getting this off the ground, and then get in contact with my county coordinator to see where I can be plugged in immediately.  I worry about those who might have needed a more concrete action plan in order to keep this momentum going.

At the End of the Day…

I felt immense gratitude towards Adam, Matt, the executive committee, and all the organizers of the conference.  They planned for 300 and over 600 people showed up on a Saturday morning to talk about the future of Kentucky.  It was an incredible feat to energize a population that has, in recent years and months, been discouraged by the direction of state and national politics.  I think that the organizers are off to a phenomenal start.  I plan to throw my support behind these efforts, knowing that there is plenty of room for all of us to grow into the inclusive issue-driven party that we claim to be, holding organizers to the fire that this movement is anything BUT “politics as usual”.  If this project truly isn’t about elevating the status of any one or two “pedigreed” politicians, but about garnering our collective power as diverse Kentuckians to impact change, I’m all in.  Who’s with me?

Learn how you can be involved at New Kentucky Project.  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

How to Invite A Non-White or Non-Christian Over For Dinner

White friends - I'm not here to debate the merits of the safety pin campaign or the upcoming Women's march in Washington DC.  Times like these call for solidarity at all levels.  I see you when you shared that "How to be an Ally" article on Facebook last week.  I see you at the Martin Luther King Day parades, when you wish your neighbors a Happy Ramadan, and when you donate to the Dakota Access Pipeline Fund.  I see you doubling your tip at the local Mexican restaurant the day after the election, and I see you out there boycotting, kicking and screaming against our Klan-endorsed president-elect.  If you haven't heard it before, let me be the first to say THANK YOU for showing us your outrage. I'm sure you already know that your actions and voices are critical and necessary in this fight.

But now, may I challenge you a bit further?  For all the safety pins you wear, and marches you participate in, how many people of color or friends who have different faith backgrounds do you have sitting around your dinner table?  You know, on a Saturday night when you have a couple folks over for dinner and drinks or when you have Friendsgiving during the holidays - how many people do you have sitting at your table who worship a different God than you do, who speak another language, or who have skin tones several shades darker than yours? I have this perhaps overly naive notion that we can't possibly impact systems of oppression - I mean really impact - until we have first-hand knowledge of the personal stories and journeys of those who are oppressed.  In other words, the safety pins, marches, and extra tips at the Mexican restaurant are a great start to show solidarity, but how many of you live your daily life in a way that authentically embodies inclusiveness and respect for those who are different than you?

Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated hours in American life, with more than 8 in 10 congregations made up of one predominant racial group.  While census data shows an increase in racial diversity in the country's largest cities over the past 20 years, African-Americans remain concentrated in segregated neighborhoods and newly arrived immigrants continue to settle in concentrated racial residential patterns.  I dare say no safety pin or march is ever going to change that.

While your acts of solidarity may be great tools for raising public awareness, what we, the marginalized voices, really really need from you right now is for you to SEE us - not just the parts of us that most closely resemble yours, but how we perceive the world, how the world perceives us, how drastically different those two things often are.  47% of Americans did not see us on November 8.  If you are part of the remaining 53% who didn't vote for Donald Trump, we're not so sure you see us either.  If you did, you would've put that safety pin on decades ago.  YOU WOULD NEVER STOP MARCHING.

So, what do you say we break some bread together?  Every time I bring this up with my white friends they ask me, "But how?"  How do you go about doing this without offending and tokenizing?  Do you finally walk up to that only black person at work and invite them over for Thanksgiving?  Do you post a Facebook status with a blanket invite to all your Muslim and immigrant acquaintances?

Please, NO.

If you are truly invested in more deeply and more authentically connecting with someone different than you, it is going to take time.  A lot more time than affixing that pin or coordinating that carpool to the march.  Rather than focusing on HOW to invite someone different than you over for dinner, try focusing instead on how you can become the KIND of person someone would feel comfortable (and even enjoy)  sharing their true selves and personal space with.  Here are a few humble suggestions on how to begin to build that kind of trust.

1.  Listen.

No matter how many books and articles you've read about institutional racism and systemic oppression, don't feel the need to regurgitate it all back to us.  Trust me, we already know.  I can't tell you the number of times I've left a conversation with someone and felt that I've been lectured.  Thank you for reading up on everything. Now try being silent when having such future conversations.  You might be surprised to actually hear real ways that people are navigating - on a daily basis -  the America that you read about in those books.

2.  Give up space.

When someone asks for your expert voice or your time to serve on a committee, make recommendations  for people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, and non-Christians  to share their voice and time instead.  In my former job as a rape crisis center director, I knew a dynamic white female activist.  Every time the media would contact her for a story, she produced a list of all the brown and black female activist in the state for them instead.  Oppressive policies and systems can't change unless the people impacted are sitting in the seats with the power to change them.

3.  Take in other news and media sources.

You may be surprised to know that there are news and media sources out there that more accurately capture the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities.  Look at the sources of the articles your friends of color are posting.  Read those websites regularly.  Check out the local Spanish and African-American-owned newspapers and publications in our city.  Chances are they exist and you didn't even know about them.

4.  Get comfortable with discomfort.

I'm not going to lie, it might be awkward at first when you start listening.  I guarantee you'll hear cultural references, news, information, and perspectives that you've never before heard.  You might begin to feel like you are walking on egg shells, that anything you say or do might offend.  GOOD. This means that you're beginning to be aware that the world doesn't revolve around you, and that the people living in the very same town as you could possibly be living very, very differently than you - like my mom, who has to drive 40  miles just  to grocery shop for her food staples, or my friend who can't find a hairdresser within 20 miles, or my international student who is afraid to go to Walmart at night.  Believe me when I say this, people of color and members of minority communities have learned to live with this discomfort all their lives.  You'll survive.

5.  Speak up especially when it puts you at risk.

It's easy to post something polarizing when hiding behind the safety of social media or even to say, "Hey, that's not cool", when you hear a discriminatory comment.  But are you silent when your boss shuts down the only person of color around the board table or when your future mother-in-law thinks that Mexicans make excellent gardeners but can't be trusted otherwise?  Because if you are, we see you.  And what we see is another white person who affirms racism.  Another white person, whose dinner invitation we'd likely politely decline.

6.  Be unabashedly authentic.

Don't be fake.  Don't try to become us by eating different cuisines or getting new hairstyles or listening to certain music.  Just be you.  We've been seeing you and accepting you AS YOU ARE since we came into this world.  Do the same for us.  See us as we are, not only when we are a reflection of your likes and dislikes.  Not only when we're silent because you're voice is filling all the spaces.  Not only when we use your words and speak your lingo - we've been taught early on how to do this in order to help make you more comfortable.  Be you - flawed, imperfect, willing to change and evolve.

We see you.  And if we see you living your life daily in the above ways over and over again, we might just invite YOU over for dinner first.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Kids These Days Need to Show More Respect

Sulky, mopey, and mumbling something under his breath, my 8-year old refused to hand over his Nintendo 3ds to me and go to bed.  It was 45 minutes past his bedtime.  This had been a common, yet new battle in our household for the past 2 weeks.  Up until then, my son was a pretty agreeable, chatty, happy, typical 3rd grader who rarely argued.  But two weeks ago his dog, Barney died unexpectedly.  They practically grew up together - slept in the same bed together every single night. Without Barney, it seemed our son suddenly ran out of anything to say.  He became quiet and withdrawn and buried his head in that darn Nintendo 3ds from the time he got home from school until he passed out with exhaustion at night.  We tried everything to try to cheer him up, but nothing worked.  There was nothing we could do to protect him from fully experiencing the natural grieving process.

I asked him once again to hand over his Nintendo.  At this point, he turned it off and stuck it in his pocket, but still refused to hand it to me.  I told him he needed to go to bed and he just stared at me blankly, defiantly.  It was at this point in our interaction that I truly felt, that as a parent, I had run out of options.

So I sprung over and grabbed him by his tender neck, placed him in a headlock, and slammed his frail, 65-pound body into our tile kitchen floor, his head hitting the tile making a crack so loud it echoed throughout our house.  And I dragged him kicking and screaming into his bedroom. Something had to give.  Kids these days need to show more respect for authority.

Note:  Every single part of this story is fictional, except the fact that I do have an 8-year old. #satire  #blacklivesmatter

Saturday, August 1, 2015

What Not To Do When Trying to "Build Racial Unity"

I've worn glasses or contacts since I was 6 years old.  My doctors told my parents that I should have probably started wearing them since I was 3.  No one noticed how little I could see until I hit 1st grade and began guessing what my teacher was writing on the chalk board.  I never told my parents this, I guess because I didn't know any better.  I was seeing in the only way I knew how since birth, so it was just my norm.  My childhood was brutal - the teasing, the mocking, the bullying.  You see I wasn't just a little near-sighted.  I was off-the-charts near-sighted with astigmatism.  The lenses in my glasses cost 3 times as much as the frames.  Comparing them to coke-bottles would be an understatement.  I was the 7-year-old who sneaked behind my parents couch and became forever traumatized by that scene from Salem's Lot where the little boy ghost came scratching at the window.  The one who was afraid to take her glasses off while she slept - for 3 straight weeks - because she wanted to be able to see (and defend herself against) what might appear at her window at night.  I was the 9-year old whose glasses were snatched from her face in math class and hidden from her throughout the entire time while her classmates giggled behind her back.  She was too scared to tell her teacher.  I was the awkward 10-year old who dreaded P.E. because, well sweat makes glasses slide right off one's little nose, not to mention all the jumping and running.  I was the the 13-year old who on her way to a family wedding, decided to not wear her glasses for the night.  Why ruin a beautiful dress with four eyes?  She ended up walking into tables, greeting the wrong guests, ignoring others and getting caught drinking a glass of wine.  I was the 15-year old who finally convinced her parents that she needed contacts.The one who thought that this would surely make the boy she's had the crush on for years finally notice her.  He didn't.

A few years ago I re-connected with a distant cousin from my childhood who noticed that I was was no longer wearing glasses.  We went through all the usual pleasantries, "Oh, you look great.  Didn't you use to wear glasses?"   Our conversation went something like this:

"I had no idea you were so blind!  I know exactly how you feel.  I once got my eyes dilated and they just made me sit there and wait for half an hour before I could drive home.  It was such a pain!"  Yeah, that's pretty much how I would feel 24-7 if it weren't for my contacts.

We reminisced a bit back to our childhood years.  He said, "Weren't those the best days ever?"  Well, actually, I'm kind of glad they are over, I was 4-eyed Mae, remember?   He continued, "Oh, kids were just being kids.  We all got teased.  You shouldn't take it so personally.  It's no big deal."  Except that I failed a math assignment the day my glasses were taken away (and have hated math ever since) and regularly hid in the janitor's closet during P.E. class.  

Of course our conversation led us to that fateful family wedding.  "Remember that time you drank wine at that wedding?  You got in so much trouble!  That was a hoot!"  Actually, I was terrified, wanting to fit in so much, I was willing to give up total control of my environment.  "Oh that's silly.  No one even notices if you wear glasses or not.  No one treats you differently just because you have glasses on." 

We began talking about our careers and families.  "See how far you've come?  Those kids didn't mean anything by it.  It was a long, long time ago.  I think you need to stop dwelling on this."  Actually, it was the first thing you mentioned when we met and you're the one who keeps bringing it up.

"I bet you feel more normal now that you have contacts.  You're just like one of us!  We're no different at all."  Actually, I spend about $1200 every year for eye exams, contacts, and glasses.  Oh, and I didn't really feel "not" normal before I wore contacts.
So in the course of our 20 minute conversation, my cousin managed to:

1.  Minimize the totality of my life experiences by saying that he too knew what it's like because he once had his eyes dilated for 30 minutes.

2.  Tell me  my feelings were invalid, and instead offered alternative ways I should feel about something he has never personally experienced.

3.  Discount all my painful childhood bullying experiences by saying "kids were just being kids".

4.  Make the sweeping, uninformed, and careless, statement that no one even noticed that I was different - that it was just all my own perception.

5.  Immediately point out my missing glasses, but then turned around and said that I was the one dwelling on them.

6. Ignore all that he witnessed during our childhood, and all that I shared with him about my experiences, and still insisted that we had the same kind of childhood, that we were no different at all.

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself in a long and lengthy Facebook dialog with someone from college who told me that I was being racist when I posted this status update:

My white friends say, "Have a safe trip."  My African-American friends say, "Keep your phone charged and your camera working."  #BlackLivesMatter

I wrote it because one of my closest girlfriends was taking her mom on a road trip this weekend, and she was scared about driving.  A few years ago when she was traveling with her white husband, they were pulled over, he was taken from the car until the officer could verify that my African-American friend was not a prostitute.  Hearing that changed me.  Stirred me.  Made it impossible for me to go about my day without calling attention to the fact that as Americans, we are forced to live very different lives, depending on how we are treated.  Depending on the color of our skin.  This of course, all on the heels of the Samuel DuBose shooting by a University of Cincinnati officer. 

And in the course of my back and forth exchange with my college acquaintance, he managed to accomplish all 6 of the above points.  Except we weren't talking about 4-eyed Mae anymore.  We were talking about something much more significant.  We were talking about human experiences and how race impacted those experiences.  And from his privileged vantage point, my college acquaintance believed that he was engaged in a genuine effort to build racial unity. 

Shortly after, another Facebook friend private messaged me. She had been following our exchange and while she initially had discomfort with my original post, she wanted to understand.  She wanted to be proactive in creating a world where people didn't have to live drastically different life experiences.  She asked me how she could start.   In a few moments I will e-mail her the above six points, after I add the word "don't" before each point.  I appreciated her reaching out to me so much.  I told her that if she was really serious about being a trusted ally who could help build bridges, she should consider refraining from asking so many questions like: Why do you feel that way?  Why do you have to do that? Don't you think that's making things more divisive?  

And just listen. 

We don't do that nearly enough.  I'm not excluding myself from that camp either.  Because at the end of the day, if we are truly serious about making meaningful connections with people who are different from us, our opinions on how they should act, and how they should feel don't really matter as much as how they really live and how they really feel.  And how different would the world look if we all navigated life with the same exact clarity, looking through the exact same lens.  In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt for us to help each other get around, and sometimes perhaps, just get out of the way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Appeal to Bereans Publicly Displaying the Confederate Flag

I'm not here to argue the historical relevance, symbolism, and your personal sense of pride and loyalty to the flag.  I'm not here to argue your rights under the First Amendment.  I support our individual rights to freedom of speech and expression.  I get it.  You have the right to display that flag.  I promise you, I'm not here to argue that.  My purpose here today is rather three-fold.  Please bear with me.

1.)  I want to let you know that I value you as a citizen of this town, a neighbor, a Berean.  Our kids probably go to school together. You have probably extended a kind act towards me at some point during the last two decades - perhaps wished me a blessed day when I was out jogging, or let me in front of you at the grocery store line?  I hope I've done the same for you.

2.)  I want to challenge you to join me in asking this question of yourself:  Is it more important for me to be compassionate or to be right?  I used the word "join" with great intention, because this is an ongoing personal struggle for me, one that I've most recently re-committed myself to.  I promise to always ask myself this question when our paths cross and when we disagree.  I promise to listen to your side, reserve judgement, and see you first as a human being with inherent goodness. 

3.)  I want to share with you how real people who live in our town feel when they see you.  I'm certain that you are not aware of the real-life impact the display of the flag has on your neighbors, your children's teachers, your high school classmates.  I wanted you to know because I believe that you would never want to inflict pain and fear on anyone, regardless of your pride, regardless of your true intentions, and not even in the name of being "right".

Yesterday, my friend made the decision to drive right by the Speedway although she needed gas - because you were parked there.  Her four African-American sons were in the car with her.

This week an African-American staff member at one of our local schools happened to walk by your teen children who had confederate flags draped around their shoulders.   Can you imagine what may have been going through her mind?

When you and your friends were parked in Walgreen's parking lot revving up your engines and honking your horns at passerbys, an elderly African-American woman decided that maybe she could go one day without picking up her prescriptions.

An African-American mother discreetly put her cell phone in her hand "just in case" when exiting her car with her young children.   She needed groceries and had to walk right by you and your friends in Walmart's parking lot.

An African-American man was called racial slurs when someone driving around with the flag passed him on the street.  This has happened many, many times to many, many others over the last 20 years.  While your intentions may be to express pride and not hate, others - so many others - are using that very same symbol to inflict hate. 

I know in my heart that it can't be your intention to make your neighbors feel threatened and intimidated in their own hometowns, to force parents to have gut-wrenching conversations with their children at a very young age, to make anyone feel like they are not welcome, safe, and included in our community.  Because while our town is big enough for us to disagree and to express our beliefs, it's too small for us to forget that we are an interconnected community made up of real people with real feelings. 

Still Striving to Love My Neighbors - All of Them,

Mae Suramek
20 Year Berea Resident

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How I Almost Embraced Christianity….if it weren’t for Christians

I’m not sure when it started but I always talked to God – ever since I was a little girl. While this may sound like the norm for many, prayer and commune with a higher power was not something that was ever taught to me.  I grew up in an interfaith family - my mother, a Muslim, and my father a Buddhist.  Their worship rituals were drastically different, ranging from Muslim Koran readings, to Buddhist meditations, the lighting of incense for the departed, paying respect to ancestors, fasting, and regular charity towards all living beings like freeing fish and birds during Buddhist holidays, and coming together to pay for funerals for underprivileged Muslims.  You’d think this would be confusing for an 8 year old when God had so many glorious faces and was called by so many different names - Allah, Buddha, Yahweh, Jesus.  Oh, I forgot to mention - to complicate things even more, throughout my elementary and middle school years I also attended a private Christian school where I studied scripture daily for 7 years.  But really, it wasn’t confusing at all.  In fact, when I think back to those years, I recall feeling a clear sense of certainty and faith in God, something that I haven’t felt as powerfully since. 

While I never called my God by a specific name, he was undoubtedly present in my life at a very early age.  He protected me from the Salem’s Lot nightmares I used to have when I was 6.  He helped me feel safe as a 14 year old traveling alone on a plane across the Pacific ocean.  He helped me navigate loss, heartache, and gave me strength to face a miscarriage and a divorce later on in life.  In my world, God was ever present, always embracing, and it didn’t really matter what he looked like or what I called him.  He just was.  Life’s only certainty.  As I entered my teen years, I became deeply devout to the Christian faith.  I wore a tiny golden cross around my neck.  I read the Good News Bible every night before I went to bed and quite honestly I “felt” the spirit often in my daily routine.  Slowly I began seeing myself as a Christian and I eventually decided to get baptized when I was 15.  My relationship with God and Jesus was tight.  I had no qualms, no questions, it was natural. 
I went on to College and “church hopped” quite a bit but had difficulty finding my place.  I didn’t look like any of the kids at the Baptist Student Union and my life experiences were so drastically different that I had trouble relating to the upbeat music and small group experiences.  Plus, while self-identifying as a Christian, I related much more to the international students of various faith backgrounds – and none of them ever preached to me.  I dabbled with the Catholic Church and probably because of my background, found peace in the ritualistic aspects of the service, but because I wasn’t able to take communion, I always felt like a perpetual visitor.  I went on to church hop all through my adult life, seeking, yearning for a place -but no matter where I went, the message was sometimes subtle, sometimes loud and clear:  You, Mae are on the right track, but your parents will not have a place in the Kingdom of God.  And it wasn’t just my parents who were lost, but it was my entire family, my international friends, and probably most of my country of origin (Thailand) too.  And it was my sole purpose to save them.  But what exactly was I saving them from?  These were GOOD people who not only believed in God but who also strived to live their lives as Christ did.  In fact many were living their lives in a more Christ-like manner than my Christian friends who were engaging in premarital sex, bullying, gossiping, and oh, the judgement was brutal.  If the God that I knew didn’t see this, then maybe I didn’t belong in the Christian faith after all?

As I entered adulthood, I encountered many incredibly loving Christians who modeled grace and compassion as I continued my journey of spiritual seeking.  Maybe there still was a place for me in the Christian faith?  I took on Meals on Wheels routes with Christian friends delivering food to the sick and elderly.  I prayed with them in my office when the second plane went down on 9/11.  But you know what?  My Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist friends were engaged in the same types of community outreach.  Caring about your fellow human wasn't something patented by Christians.  And then something began to happen.   ALL THE TIME.  I began encountering more and more self-proclaimed Christians who began talking “at” me rather than with me.  In the name of Jesus, I was told that my gay friends were an abomination, that my pre-marital co-habitation with my husband was a disgrace – that I was a disgrace.  That I needed to only be around other Christians or I would be too “tempted”.  A dear friend recently explained to me that Christians are called to profess their truth and preach the gospel and that while it may come across as judgement, it is not intended as such.  I can respect that, really I can.  But what I really couldn’t come to terms with until this day is how little and unworthy I was always made to feel.  I was never good enough, strong enough, disciplined enough to be loved by God.  My family, my friends from other faith backgrounds, my gay friends, the rest of the world’s population were not worthy enough to be loved by God.  I thought back to my early childhood years when I didn’t really choose to have a relationship with God.  I just did.  He spoke to me and I opened my heart to him and it didn’t matter what his name was.  He was just always there.  But this new Christianity that I seemed to be encountering more and more was ironically coming between my relationship with my God.  Would God really want someone to pen a sign that said “All homosexuals will burn in hell”, like the one I saw at a rally in college?  Would God really want Christians looking down on the rest of the world as sinners rather than walking alongside fellow journeyers in pursuit of a meaningful relationship with God? That “us” versus “them” mentality just didn’t sit well in my soul and definitely wasn’t what I felt in my heart that my God was calling me to do.
And so slowly I began to find my own path towards God, and away from Christianity.  While I have extraordinarily kind and inclusive Christian friends, I just haven’t been able to find my place in a faith that continues to have such a wide range of interpretations, and so much internal dissent on what it means to lead a Christ-like life.  And so in the meantime I seek and I journey and I live my life in a way that nurtures and grows my relationship with that God I knew as a child.  The one who was ever present.  The one who loved my parents and loved the world.  The one who inspired me to go out and become a part of the world and to walk alongside fellow travelers with no agenda other than to love.  The one whose light shines brighter than any name or title that any human being could assign.   I think back to my Christian friends during my early adulthood – the ones that made me want to know Jesus – and it occurred to me that they never once verbally professed their faith to me.  They just lived it.  Loud and clear – bringing food to inmates on the weekends, singing to the elderly at nursing homes, always having a warm bed for anyone who came through town.   There was no talk about loving the sinner but not the sin, there was just simple, pure love by example.     

I haven’t given up on God, I don’t think I ever will.   But I’m coming to a place where I may be giving up on religion, perhaps?  You know, cut out the middle man and go straight to the source like I did when I was a little girl?   The funny thing is that I never taught my own son (who is now 7) to pray, and he has been talking to God on his own since he was 2.  We don't even attend church so I have little choice but to believe in divine intervention.  Sometimes he prays on his hands and knees with his hands clasped like his Kentucky grandma does.  Sometimes he kneels down and faces the sun and talks to God like his Thai grandma does.  I can't help but think that we grown-ups get in the way of that direct line to the Universe, that we were all gifted with at birth.  I hope Christian friends reading this do not take my comments as an assault on all Christians and Christianity.  Cliché as it may sound, some of my best friends are Christian and I frequently find immense joy when journeying alongside them.  And to all of you who are tempted right this very moment to send me a private message to invite me to your home to share the gospel with me, please don’t.  But I do invite you to walk alongside me, journey with me, maybe even come break fast with my mother during this month of Ramadan.  Show me that you are as human as I am.  Because no matter how eloquent and compelling you are, nothing that you say will ever be as powerful as the manner in which you live out your faith. 
Join me in my journey and I’ll join you in yours?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Dear Women Who Don't Identify As Feminists

Ladies, what if I told you that you actually might be a feminist.  Yes, you, a FEMINIST.    But how could that be, you ask?  You fantasize about the Marlboro man, you promised to "love and honor" your husband at the alter, and Cinderella is your all-time favorite Disney movie.  Feminism:  a.k.a. "the most misunderstood theoretical concepts of our time."   Judging from my newsfeed alone, I'm confronted daily by nice women in my broader circle of friends, who I've unknowingly offended for spouting feminism rhetoric.  And I had no idea I was even doing so.  I assumed that all of the females in my circle identified as feminists, but I assumed wrong.  It turns out that feminism (or rather one's perceived definition of feminism) can give out some pretty negative vibes to women who consider themselves more "traditional", and to women who don't walk around challenging patriarchy on a daily basis like I do.  Here's the thing though - I think there's room for all of our voices to be heard.  And I wonder if we started listening to each other more, if we'd be surprised at just how closely we stand on the issues that really matter. I'm afraid that if we can't even get on the same page about "feminism" at a very basic level, we won't be able to tackle the more serious issues that really are impacted by the true marginalization of women.  "Marginalization".  That's the most theoretical word I'm going to use in this blog.  Words you also won't see anymore:  Patriarchy, Liberation, Misandry, Misogyny, Second Wave, Objectification, and Oppression.

Today, I want to break it down in more simpler terms, not because I don't think you're capable of grasping those textbook terms, but because I want to lift up that silent wall that tends to separate the women and gender studies majors from the stay-at-home moms.   It's really so mind-numbingly simple, it's scary.  If you believe in basic fairness and mutual respect, you, my friend, are a feminist.  And for us to start tackling the big issues like sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking, women's health, and income equality, we all need to be at the table:  stay-at-home moms, bra-burning radicals, and everyone in between.  And we all need to agree that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men.  My hunch is that we actually already agree on this.

So give it to me.  What are all the reasons you've rejected feminism all these years?   Allow me to take a shot at this:

But I quit work to stay home with the kids.
Being a feminist means that your opinions and perspectives regarding parenting and family decisions are valued as equally as your partner's.  If you have deemed that putting your career on hold in order to care for your children makes the best sense for your family, then that's YOUR choice.  Kudos to you.  Feminists come in all variations, but the common thread is that we believe that women should have the same choices as men.  As long as no one is forcing or guilting you into staying home with the kiddos, you may still be a feminist.  And when you decide the time is right for you to go back to work, armed with your qualifications and experience, you'd probably expect to make as much (given your sabbatical) or a bit more money as John over there who just graduated and has no experience, right?  That, my friend, would make you a feminist.

But I like it when he opens the door for me.
Kindness never goes out of style.  As long as YOU don't forget how to open a door, and you help out others when their hands are full (or they're pushing a baby stroller), you aren't disqualified from the title.  When someone you love expresses his affection in adoring ways, even feminists are allowed to gush.  After all, you'd do the same for him, right?  Note:  reciprocity in the relationship.

But I would never have an abortion.
Your body, your choice.  Just because you have personal, religious, and/or moral reasons against abortion, you may still be a feminist - particularly if you question why the majority of people making laws about this will never ever be put in a position to make such a decision to begin with (hint:  they don't have a uterus).  You may never choose to have an abortion yourself, but you empathize with a woman faced with this kind of decision.  Regardless of your feelings on abortion, you'd want to empower her with the knowledge, information, and support for her to do what's best for her.  You'd never want a stranger who doesn't even know the depths and complexities of her position to arbitrarily make that decision for her.  If you're at least willing to start the conversation there, I wouldn't rule out feminism just yet.

But I like it when my boyfriend spends time with me.
It's OK!  Most people I know date/marry someone because they genuinely enjoy spending time with them. As long as he isn't the one dictating how you spend your time, and who you spend it with, I hate to break it to you, but you still qualify.

But I like to cook for my man.
Guess what?  So do I!  Mainly because a can of crushed tomatoes, a box of spaghetti, and a few flat squares of processed Kraft Singles just doesn't seem to do it for me (despite his best intentions).  Now you have to be careful here.  Finding joy in sharing your culinary talents with those you love is very different from walking in the door with him looking up from his iPad and asking, "What's for dinner?"

But I feel safer when he's around.
My husband is 6 foot tall and I'm 5'1.  Whenever I'm traveling alone at a hotel, I never sleep soundly because I feel a tad vulnerable being in a strange place and, because my husband's not snoring right next to me in the event of a break-in, sudden fire, tornado, or zombie apocalypse.  It's OK, really.  He admits that he sleeps more soundly when we're together too.  Especially since I'm considering putting a bid on a zombie hunter blade on eBay this week.  There's that reciprocity again.

But I like for him to buy me gifts.
I've been in positions where I've made more and made less than my significant other.  Either way, I still appreciated it when a boyfriend/husband came bearing a thoughtful gift.  Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean I'm going to turn down someone's kind gesture and expression of love.  For the record, I'm quite the thoughtful gift-giver myself.  See a pattern here?  Balance?  Give and Take?  Starting to get the hang of this feminist thing yet?

But I'm turned on by strong, muscular bad boys.
While this isn't my typical modus operandi, I have plenty of girlfriends who are attracted to no other type.   Just because I'm a "brains over brawn" feminist who defines strength in less physical terms, this doesn't mean that you can't have attractions that are different than mine.  More power to you, sister.  And more muscles too.

But I like to wear sexy clothes that show off my assets.
Being a feminist means you can and should be able to wear whatever the heck you want to wear without someone placing their own expectations on you.   Trust me, I don't walk around in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt all the time in order to downplay my femininity.  I've also been known to have a slinky nightie or two.  As long as it's my choice to wear what I want to wear, when I want to wear it, and no one else makes those choices for me.....or expects me to act a certain way because of what I have on.  

But I'm still waiting for Prince Charming and "happily ever after".
Many of us aspire to find "the one" and go on to lead happy, blissful lives.  It's OK and even natural for us to long for deep connections with another human being, to long for partnership and companionship.  That is, as long as you're realistic that "Prince Charming" may come with a ton of baggage, may one day become unemployed, and does indeed belch and pass gas.  Without the crown and horse, you'll probably want to make sure that you remain in full control of your own "happily ever after".

And around here, we call that feminism, my friend.

So what do you say we shed the formalities, get rid of those pesky theoretical terms?  And whether or not we identify with the term "feminist", as women, do you think we could simply agree on just one basic notion?  That we should have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else?

I certainly hope so, because our daughters are counting on us to start working together to create a better, safer world for them.

Not Your Textbook Feminist
(forgive me, bell)

            Photo credit:  Housewife from 1950's by Michael Kennedy Photos

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Why I've "Named" the Victims of Josh Duggar by Discussing Incest

I run a rape crisis center.  Our philosophy is simple.  We believe victims.  We empower them to make their own decisions about their healing.  We respect their privacy.  Belief, power, respect - these are all things that have been stripped away from them.  We want to make every effort to restore them. 

This is why we never pressure a victim to file a police report.  We never advise them on what they should or shouldn't do.  We merely provide all the possible options, and we stand by them and their decisions.  That is, unless the victim is a child - especially if the abuser is someone living within that child's home. We still fiercely advocate to restore belief, power, and respect, but doing so for a 25-year old living in her own apartment and paying her own bills looks VERY different than doing so for a 7-year old whose entire emotional and physical existence is dependent on her abuser.  How do you restore belief to someone whose entire belief structure was created for them by their abuser?  How do you restore power to someone who never had any to begin with?  How do you begin to challenge the definition of "privacy" for a child victim of incest, when they've been taught that sexual abuse is normal, a family matter, a private matter?

Since the Duggar sexual abuse case came to light, I've been called out by several friends and even colleagues for "naming" the victims by referencing the incest.  I've joined the ranks of other victims advocates to publicly hold ourselves, as a society, accountable to: empathizing with the plight of an abuser more than a victim; continuing to frame incest and child sexual abuse as a private family matter; ignoring the powerful impact religion has on the way we address sexual abuse.  While I have never actually named any of the victims, I have discussed these matters in the context of sexual abuse that happened by a family member, within the victim's own home.  And when your family is thrust into the limelight and watched weekly by millions of viewers, it's not hard to figure out who the victims might be. This has caused several people to accuse me of disregarding the privacy of the victims.  I would like to offer you three reasons why, as the director of a rape crisis center, a mom, and a member of society, I've chosen to do this.

1.  It is not possible to dismantle childhood incest without first confronting the complex power dynamics of the abuser/abused relationship that allows it to exist.   While all forms of child sexual abuse can have negative long-term effects for the victim, incest is especially damaging because it disrupts the child’s primary support system, the family.  The victim has been told that what is happening is normal or happens in every family, and doesn’t realize that it is a form of abuse.  The victim may care about the abuser and be afraid of what will happen to the abuser if they disclose. When a child is abused by someone outside the family, the child’s family is often able to offer support and a sense of safety.  When the abuser is someone in the family, the family may not be able to provide support or a sense of safety. Since the children (especially younger children) often have limited resources outside the family, it can be very hard for them to recover from incest.  (Excerpts from RAINN: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network website)

2.  In our efforts to protect the privacy of the (now) adult victims, could we possibly still be shaming them as children?  When media outlets commit not to name adult victims, it is because historically, we as a society have further shamed victims by blaming the sexual assault on them, by letting perpetrators walk with little to no consequences, and by questioning the truthfulness of their claims.  Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often continue to carry with them confusing feelings of intense shame and self-blame.  Because I don't have direct access to the victims in this case, I want to shout it from the rooftops:  It's not your fault.  Not even if your own parents and the world around you have done very little to hold your abuser accountable.  Not even if your faith taught you that you are somehow responsible for tempting the action of others.

3.  It is a scary slippery slope when we attempt to "protect" the privacy of a child at the cost of perpetuating the dangerous notion that incest is a private family matter and that child victims have no voices.  Of course I believe that every child has the right to grow up without forever being defined by their sexual abuse.  Of course in my daily professional practice I diligently comply with mandatory reporting, confidentiality, and disclosure laws and policies.  But when media outlets are already reporting that this is a case of incest, it is irresponsible for us to frame it otherwise.  Because by doing so we are sending the message that there are different standards for sexual abuse if it happens in your home, by someone who should be protecting you.  We are perpetuating the message that incest couldn't possibly happen, and even if it did, it's too taboo of a topic, too difficult for us to stomach, much less talk about. My main motivation here is to increase public awareness of the problem in order to encourage other victims to disclose and seek help.

All States require appropriate agencies to report child abuse.  18 states, including my home state of Kentucky, require any person who suspects child abuse or neglect to report the abuse as well.  Please become informed of your state's reporting laws here:  Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect.

If you are an adult dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, please remember that you are not responsible for the abuse and that you are not alone. You can overcome the effects the abuse may have on your life. Please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the Online Hotline. It’s never too late to get help.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

My 7-Year Old Is a Privileged Kid with A Nook and I'm Not Happy About It

My 7-year old son has been living a pretty privileged state of existence for the duration of his short life.  Please allow me to offer a small demonstration via America's favorite e-reader: the Nook.  Yes, indeed, this week my husband (the tech geek) upgraded, and therefore passed on his formerly prized e-reader to our son, fully loaded with all 53 issues of "The Magic Tree House" series.  That's right, unlimited e-books on demand, at the fingertips of someone who can barely wipe his own butt.  And you know what came before the Nook?  Saturday morning family strolls to the public library where he could pick any book he wanted, and where the trip usually ended with a pit stop at the ice-cream or fudge shop.  Books = family time + ice-cream.  How's that for some positive reinforcement?  And before that, you ask?  When he just started walking, we regularly brought our son to play with his favorite wooden train table....which happened to be situated perfectly in the middle of the children's section of Barnes and Noble.  And before this child was even born, he had a bookcase filled with books.  I'm talking at least 50 books before he could even see past 15 inches, people.

So is it any surprise that I have a 2nd grader who reads at the 4th grade level, who was put in the advanced reading group, has already been taught how to do research and write book reports, and who has fallen asleep with his Nook on his chest every night this week?  Am I proud of my kiddo?  Of course I am, he's my only son.  But barring any disabilities, given the gentle subtle and not-so-subtle nudging we've been doing for the past 7 years, does my kid really have any excuse NOT to be a strong reader?

While I'm grateful for the opportunities that I've been able to offer my son with our two-parent, two-income, two-car garage lifestyle, I can't help but think of the 50-70% of his peers who qualify for free or reduced lunches at his cafeteria.  I imagine the single parent who works evenings and weekends and has never been able to take her child to the public library when it's open.  I imagine the family living below the poverty line who has never been able to step foot into Barnes and Noble, much less dream of owning a Nook.  I imagine children who have parents that struggle with addiction, or children who are abused and neglected, that have never experienced a "family stroll" to the library, ice-cream parlor, or anywhere else for that matter.  Some say that when you become a mother, you become a mother to all the children of the world.  Maybe that's why I woke up in a cold sweat last week when imagining some of my son's peers being left behind.  Kids already labeled as "at-risk" being unintentionally denied leadership and growth opportunities while my son, who is likely to succeed no matter what, gets labeled as "high-achieving", and is consequently exposed to even more leadership and development opportunities.

By the end of fourth grade, African American, Latino, and poor students of all races are two years behind behind their wealthier, predominantly white peers in reading and math. By eighth grade, they have slipped three years behind, and by twelfth grade, four years behind. 

African American students are three times more likely than white students to be placed in special education programs, and are half as likely to be in gifted programs in elementary and secondary schools.   

By age three, children of professionals have vocabularies that are nearly 50 percent greater than those of working class children, and twice as large as those of children whose families receiving public assistance. 

* The Academic Achievement Gap, Teacher's College, Columbia University    

My son's school employs highly competent and compassionate educators who are doing the very best they can with their limited resources, time, and with the state-mandated requirements imposed upon them.  So what's a privileged mom of a privileged child to do?  Become part of the solution, of course.  Take responsibility for our privilege and do our part to level the playing field.  Like most parents who run for school board - or in my case, site-based decision making council (a Kentucky Department of Education statutory requirement), I want to advocate for educational access and academic success for all children, especially the ones that fall through the cracks.  I believe with all my heart that this is everyone's collective responsibility.  My dream (and my guess is that it's yours as well) is that when my son graduates 10 years from now, he and his peers will no longer be carrying our labels with them.  That each and every one of them will feel valued, smart, empowered, and equipped to go out and contribute to the world, regardless of whether or not their parents ever bought them a Nook.

My Top Three Priority Areas If Elected to the School-based Decision Making Council:

1.  Commit to culturally responsive teaching, equity, and inclusion of all students in order to ensure equal access to learning and participation.

2.  Explore and embrace different ways students are motivated in order to accommodate and celebrate different learning styles, communication styles, and cultural perspectives.  Shift from models of rewards and external incentives to communication, respect, and intrinsic motivation.

3.  Implement research-based prevention education that addresses bullying, dating violence, sexual violence, and stalking in order to eliminate barriers to student success.

If you happen to live in Berea, Kentucky, won't you support me, or consider advocating for these issues yourself?  If you live anywhere else in the world, won't you do whatever it takes to ensure that every single child has a chance to succeed without our labels? You know how the saying goes.... "It takes a village."  And news flash y'all:  We ARE the village.