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  He became quiet and withdrawn and buried his head in that darn Nintendo 3ds from the time he got home from school until he passed out with exhaustion at night.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.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why I Would Bake a Cake for a Christian Who Opposes Marriage Equality

I don’t own a bakery or anything.  In fact I have such a hard time following recipes, my cakes never rise, and that would make for a pretty pathetic wedding cake.  But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend I own a bakery – one that specializes in wedding cakes for that matter.  There I stand: the rainbow flag-yielding, we-belong-to-each-other, love-sees-no-color baker in town.  My store would be called, “Let them ALL Eat Cake”!  
And one day, YOU walk through the door, asking for me to bake a cake for your conservative, 1-man, 1-woman, only-definition-of-marriage-in-the-bible, Christian wedding ceremony.  Like most situations in life, I try my hardest to put myself in the shoes of others, which is precisely why you are here imagining this unlikely scenario with me.  How would I feel?  Would I not want to bake you a cake knowing that you probably wouldn’t do the same for one of my very best friends?  Would I make a big deal about it and use that opportunity to impart you with my version of my truth:  That I don’t agree with your lifestyle and life “choices”?  That my commitment to being an ally prevents me from condoning the marriages of people who fall in your category?  What would I be saying to the world by baking this cake?  That by virtue of this baked good, I was in fact validating the sanctity of your relationship?  Would I instead invite you to my home to share the gospel of impartial love with you, hoping to help you see the light – and so that you understood that I still loved people like you, but that my belief system made me conscience-bound not to bake this cake?


I’d bake you the best damn wedding cake on earth.  No strings attached.  I wouldn’t even make you promise to watch an episode of Modern Family in exchange.  I’d fill it with raspberry jam, white chocolate, Nutella, whatever your heart desired.  I wouldn’t invite you to my home for dinner though, because that would be creepy.  Why, might you ask, would I want to bake you this cake?  

Because everyone deserves to eat cake on their wedding day.  Also, because given my interfaith, multicultural background, if I only baked cakes for people who shared my exact beliefs, I’d probably go bankrupt.

And because I believe that it’s not my place, as a simple baker, to impose my judgement on who is or isn’t worthy of receiving a cake from me.   I’d be afraid to imagine a society where businesses could deny cakes and you know other things like lung transplants and bus service, based on the personal religious beliefs of the business owners.

Can you just imagine?  Is that an NRA membership card in your wallet?  NO CAKE FOR YOU!  Keep on walking Tea Party candidate.  Don’t even think about stopping, man yielding a confederate flag bumper sticker.  Don’t  understand misogyny or white privilege?  Well then, you really don’t deserve my light spongy butter cream goodness either.   I imagine that these fictional customers would probably believe in a few things that went against the core of my faith tenants and convictions, but (honestly, I’ve pondered this) I wouldn’t consider my act of baking them a wedding cake to be condoning… gun violence, income inequality, discrimination, or violence against women.

I’d just be helping someone, who I know very little about, celebrate a sentiment that should be bringing people together rather than further dividing us.  In a world full of divisive religious and political ideology, I would never turn down the opportunity to contribute to an act of LOVE, regardless of what card you are carrying in your wallet or what bumper sticker you have on your car.  Even if you wouldn't do the same for me.   

Friends, I think there’s enough cake to go around, can't we ALL eat some?


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Six Things I'm Telling My Non-African-American Child About Bloody Sunday

I’ve never been one to shy away from talking about difficult subjects with my 7-year old, but on a topic as monumental as civil rights, I often struggle on how to do so in a way that is deeper than just “the history lesson of the day” that he reads about in school and doesn’t think about again.  The last thing I want is for my Asian-American kid to feel disconnected, unaffected by this time in history that transformed a nation….that continues to tear it apart. How do I NOT make my child lose faith in all humanity at such a tender age, and yet manage to instill a sense of responsibility and ownership in him as a future citizen of the world?
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I choose to talk to my son about the ugly realities of that day, in a way that will hopefully inspire him to "be the change." While the violence of the Selma marches horrified our nation, those transformative moments in history (and the courage of the faces behind them) undoubtedly served as an important catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Here’s what I hope my son will understand today.
1.  At the end of the day, even the “good” guys are merely human, and the ones breaking the laws can end up being the greatest heroes.
During the Selma marches, activist and deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by a state trooper.  Unarmed organizer, Amelia Boynton, along with 600 peaceful marchers were viscously attacked with clubs and tear gas by state troopers and a county posse at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leaving Boynton unconscious. 

2.  Always own your privilege and then use it to impact change.
While the governor of the state of Alabama refused to protect the marchers, President Johnson committed to doing so. Protected by 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, and many FBI agents and Federal Marshals, the marchers averaged 10 miles a day along U.S. Route 80, known in Alabama as the Jefferson Davis Highway. 

3.  Some things are worth standing up for.  Justice is one of them.
If it weren’t for the Selma marches, some of your best friends today would not be able to vote.  Barack Obama would not be president. 
4.  You can always do good from your little corner of the world.
As a 7-year old, you don’t have to march to make the world better, but you can speak up when you see someone being bullied.  You can share your views on love when someone expresses hate towards someone else.
5.  We belong to each other.  We’re all connected.
Without the civil rights movement, as an inter-racial couple, your mom and dad would not have been able to get married.  You too, wouldn’t be able to vote. 
6.  We still have a lot of work to do.
Police brutality still exists.  African-Americans are still experiencing racism.  Your uncles are still not allowed to get married.  Women are still disproportionately experiencing violence.  What is our Selma today?


Saturday, January 24, 2015

How I Won An Election Without Even Realizing It

Last year I ran for a seat on my local city council and I lost by about 200 votes.  My town actually voted for almost the exact same city council, except they replaced the only person of color with a young, conservative male.  Just as soon as election day was over on November 6th, friends and supporters began to ask me if I would consider running again.  At that time I was fairly exhausted, pretty deflated that my town had spoken loud and clear that they were happy with the way things were, and I asked folks for a few months of hibernation where I could sleep in, enjoy the holidays, have absolutely no agenda. 

And now we're almost through January and I can't seem to come out of my "hibernation".  There have been council meetings, public forums, community celebrations, and I can't seem to find the energy or motivation to get back up out there to engage myself with a town that I care so deeply about.

For the past 3 years of my life, I've trained myself to wake up at 5 a.m. in order to fit all the non-work stuff in (like writing a blog or running for office) before my day job. If there was a rare moment of free time between scheduled appointments or committee meetings, I'd frantically run to the store to pick up groceries, or if I was at home, I'd cram in folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, and making a crockpot meal in the 15 minutes before my conference call began.  Weekends and evenings were never truly mine - there was always, always, a committee meeting, a forum, you name it. There was NEVER a single moment of down time.  Ever.  I'm not complaining, it's just the reality of the life of a working mom who happens to have other interests.  I dare say that most of the women around us probably experience this very same intense juggling and multi-tasking. 

And suddenly, just like that, I had all of my mornings free......most of my evenings free........and by golly, my weekends were all mine again.  What's a girl to do?  Well, I kind of did nothing.  I slept in.  Made pancakes for my son on a SCHOOL day (Whoa.)  Went for long walks.  Picked up a book.  And I began to embrace the notion of living with no agenda.  And just when I thought I might be content turning into this selfish, lazy human being, magical things began to happen.  When I ran for city council, my main platform centered around civil rights, income equality, and economic progress.  I wanted to help pass a fairness ordinance that would protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination.  I wanted to help create a sustainable community that supported local businesses and met the food, housing and transportation needs of working-class Bereans.  I wanted to bridge the racial divide in our town that is so deep that people either deny that it exists, or are afraid to talk about it.

And so without the platform of a seat on city council, my voice was powerless.  Or was it?  Since November of last year, I have had weekly craft nights with my 7 year-old son.  This week we made paper Kenyan masks as we talked about a beautiful country in East Africa, the Maasai tribe, and Lake Victoria.   Since my weekends are free, our family has had more time to spend with our dear friends and chosen family, Ronnie and Eric and their beautiful and curious little girl that they are in the process of adopting.  Just last week I spent the entire Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday with my son - we made cards welcoming refugee children into the country and we participated in a Black history scavenger hunt at our local museum.  I wake up excited every Saturday, because we've been going on local adventures, picking up books from our public library, scouring local flea markets for the perfect Beanie Baby, drinking hot chocolate late at night at our local coffee shop, and waking up at ungodly hours just to get a chocolate-glazed donut from the new donut shop, run by the kind Vietnamese man with the cool Gears of War sweatshirt.  During Thanksgiving we welcomed a table full of friends from 3 different faith backgrounds in beautiful shades of brown and white.  During the Christmas break, our family carefully went through all of our toys and other material goods and collectively decided which  items should go to those who need them more than we do.

I wasn't exactly passing a fairness ordinance, bridging my town's racial divide, or creating a thriving local economy while helping to address income equality.  But in some ways I can't help but wonder if I've been minimizing the impact I can have right here under my own roof, with an evolving, and open-minded 7-year old sponge, who has an insatiable appetite to learn about the world around him, and how he fits into it.  And well, because I have my mornings, evenings, and weekends fairly open these days, I regularly pencil him in.  I may not be doing my life's work in city hall, but I'm slowly learning to see that I am creating ripples in a place I least expected to do so, in a place that perhaps has always needed me the most.