Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

What I Told My Granddaughters the Morning After the Election

Posted November 9th, 2016 by Tom

I awoke this morning to the realization that a man who has loudly and regularly proclaimed racism, sexism, xenophobia, white/male supremacy, and general intolerance has been elected President of the United States. I, along with so many others, feel various levels of shock, disbelief, and sadness. My first conscious thought as I rose from bed was of two granddaughters who were getting ready to go to school in the living room. They, ages 8 and 9, their mother, and my wife and I, have lived together for the past four years. I fully expected that I would speak with them today about the election of the first woman in the history of the United States to become President.

Instead, I walked into the living room for quite a different discussion. They understand that Donald Trump has said some very mean things; that he uses words that are on the “Bad words we should not say” list they wrote up for me a couple years ago; words their mom taught them not to use: hate, stupid, jerk, among others. They understand bullying. They get it when people are not nice. Make no mistake, children pick up on racism and intolerance.

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My granddaughters paid close attention as I told them what happened in the election. I told them even though Donald Trump will be the president, and that the president is supposed to set a good example, that it is not okay to be mean to other people or to hurt other people. It is still not okay to use bad words.

I’m scared,” said the younger of the two.

It’s okay to be scared,” I said. “Lots of people are scared. And I want you to know I am here for you. So are your Mommy and Daddy. We will protect you. And no matter what happens, it is important for us to be kind and to help and support each other and other people.”

We talked for several minutes about intolerance and kindness, about fear and love. I told them I loved them several times. Our conversation was the best I felt I could do for them in our brief time together this morning. They soon walked out the front door with their grandmother for the short walk to school.

I think often of what Frederick Douglass said,

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

There are many men and women who understandably and justifiably feel broken today. And this is nothing new. I want to repeat that for myself and others: This is nothing new. This election is a reflection of the consistent, historic foundation of systemic racism, sexism, and injustice upon which the United States was built, and sadly, continues to perpetuate. I’ve communicated overnight with many friends; people of color, people in the LGBTQ community, and women. People who are afraid because they live in the marginalized communities specifically and directly targeted during this election by the man who has been elected, and by many who supported his candidacy.

I’m also reminded today of words spoken by Dr. King:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

cttt-logoUndoing and replacing deeply embedded systems of injustice is long, hard work. The results of this election are a powerful reminder of how much work remains to be done, and the urgency of this work. The Vision and Mission of Coming to the Table, the organization I’ve been involved with for more than a decade, is needed now more than ever.

Those who feel sad and angry, go ahead and feel sad and angry. Mourn. Honor what you’re feeling and work through it. Talk about it. It is through difficult and challenging times that we often learn how strong we are. This is clearly a time to be strong and to recognize the opportunity we have: to build peace, to seek justice, to honor and practice Love. Systems will change when attitudes change. Be that change. You are needed now more than ever.

We have a responsibility to remain committed to the long arc of the moral universe.

We have a responsibility to help build strong children.

We have a responsibility to support and care for the most vulnerable among us.

We have a responsibility to be compassionate voices for equality, justice and peace.

We have a responsibility to our children and grandchildren, to ourselves and each other, to remember that Love prevails over fear… always.

No matter how you voted in the election, let’s reflect on where we stand today as a nation and as individuals. Let’s support each other. Let’s work for justice and peace. Let’s embrace Love. There is nothing – nothing – stronger than the power of LOVE.

That’s what I’m telling my granddaughters today.

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Coming to the Table: Now more than ever

Posted July 18th, 2016 by Tom

More people dying. More funerals. More tears. More rage. More division. More frustration.

Many of us feel numb and helpless in the wake of the recent killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota by the police, and the killings of police officers Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith, and Michael Krol in Dallas, Texas, and Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

We struggle to figure out what we can do that will make any difference.

Our world desperately needs love, compassion, justice, truth, understanding, peace, and healing. We talk about these and other ideals every time such killings show up on social media and in the news; recorded on someone’s phone. But what can we actually DO in the face of racism, injustice, and terror? An all-too common theme heard in churches, community groups, schools, around kitchen tables, and elsewhere across the United States is a desire to have deep conversations about race that will actually make a difference but not knowing how to go about it.

In order to transform our world, we need to transform how we approach confronting the problem. Old, fear-based, us-versus-them reactions haven’t ever worked, yet we keep reverting to them. We need a fundamental shift in our approach if we are to achieve a fundamental shift in our world.

Last month, I participated in a 3-day Leadership Training Institute and 4-day National Gathering organized by Coming to the Table (CTTT), a non-profit organization I’ve been involved with since its inception ten years ago. After this week-long immersion into workshops, dialogue, and relationship-building experiences with a large group of deeply-committed people from all across the United States and Canada, I feel more strongly than ever that Coming to the Table offers valuable tools for people trying to figure out what to do. As another participant wrote,

“There are precious few forums where descendants of slaves and enslavers can engage in meaningful dialog about what the legacy of slavery has done to this country and how to move forward.”

IMG_6100CTTT has a Vision for the United States of a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past—from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned. The Mission of CTTT is to provide leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal these historic, traumatic wounds.

And let’s make no mistake. These recent killings – like so many before – all stem, at least in part, from the legacy of slavery in the United States; unhealed wounds around issues of racism that continue to haunt our nation.

I know from experience the Coming to the Table Approach to acknowledging, understanding, and healing these wounds can make a positive difference. It’s a practical approach that seeks to create a space where people who are serious about the work of undoing racism and oppression can feel safe-enough to participate deeply; to share their stories, listen to the stories of others, and see each other as ultimately-connected human travelers in this challenging journey of life. It’s more than creating a space for people to talk and feel better and go home. The CTTT Approach requires effort and commitment; a commitment to stay at the table when the work gets messy and hard, which it does and will.

The central framework within Coming to the Table is the STAR Program; Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience. STAR brings together theory and practices from neurobiology, conflict transformation, human security, spirituality, and restorative justice to address the needs of trauma-impacted individuals and communities. Traumatic events may have a range of harmful effects on everyone involved, including victims, perpetrators, witnesses, bystanders, health professionals, law enforcement or military, clergy, family, and friends. If the traumatic wounds are not addressed and healed, they will persist and have further harmful impacts, and be passed on to future generations.

Two resources that help create a safe-enough space for this work are Touchstones and the Circle Process. Touchstones are a set of principles people agree upon when beginning “deep dialogue” together. Some examples of such agreements might include being 100% present, listen deeply, be open to new ideas, agree not to try to “fix” or correct others, maintain confidentiality, expect non-closure. More examples can be found here. Touchstones allow groups of people to establish ways of “being” with each other; to create a “container” for the often-difficult conversations to follow.

The Circle Process is another way to create a container for participants to feel safe enough to be in the space; often with people they consider to be “the other,” and perhaps even perceiving a threat to their safety or mental or emotional well-being. As Kay Pranis writes in The Little Book of Circle Processes, this tool “draws on the ancient Native American tradition of using a talking piece, an object passed from person to person in a group and which grants the holder sole permission to speak.” Utilizing the Circle Process is a way of bringing people together in which everyone is respected, has the opportunity to speak without interruption, share their stories, and where everyone is equal. Pranis also notes that Circles can create a container strong enough to hold anger, frustration, joy, pain, truth, conflict, diverse world views, intense feelings, silence, and paradox.

The Coming to the Table Approach to achieving the above Vision and Mission involves four interrelated practices. Uncovering History includes researching, acknowledging, and sharing personal, family and community histories of race with openness and honesty; Making Connections to others within and across racial lines in order to develop and deepen relationships; Working Toward Healing is exploring how we can heal together through dialogue, reunion, ritual, ceremony, the arts, apology and other methods; and Taking Action, actively seeking to heal the wounds of racial inequality and injustice and to support racial reconciliation between individuals, within families, and in communities. For a more thorough understanding, download the free CTTT workbook, Transforming Historical Harms.

As Michelle Alexander recently wrote,

I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals.”

This work of undoing and replacing racist structures and systems – in our nation and in ourselves – is hard. It takes courage and commitment. If we are to make a difference, we need a different approach. There are many organizations and individuals doing important and powerful work to confront racism and injustice. The Coming to the Table Approach offers a way in which all the other stuff we are trying to do can work better.

When we decide, as a human family, that love, compassion, justice, truth, understanding, peace, and healing are more important than skin color and ethnicity, political parties and religious affiliation, who wins and who loses, who’s right and who’s wrong, and our fear over what we might lose when we create a just and equal society, we can transform our world. If we are ever to break free from these cycles of violence we continue to find ourselves caught up in, we have the responsibility to do the work. The Coming to the Table Approach can help.

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The Immeasurable Distance Between Us

Posted July 4th, 2015 by Tom

Before I signed a contract with Beacon Press to publish my first book, the working title of my manuscript was The Immeasurable Distance Between Us.

IMG_7936I envisioned the cover of my book long before publication, with an image of a young teacher from Chicago and me walking side-by-side in Accra during the Panafest Pan African Historical Festival. Visualized it. Printed it. Framed it. Then signed a contract with Beacon Press and the title changed to Inheriting the Trade.

That’s all to the good. I trust my publisher and the book has done (and continues to do) well in getting into the hands of readers.

And today, July 4, 2015, I look at the image of my envisioned book cover that still hangs in my office. And I think about all I’ve learned over the past 15 years. Earlier in my life I didn’t think much about Independence Day, or Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving… just enjoyed them, or partied with friends or family, or whatever. Now, thanks to new friends, authors and others who challenge my thinking, such commemorations have become far more complicated in my mind. I don’t celebrate them much anymore. I think about what’s behind and beneath them.

My initial chosen book title comes from a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852 in Rochester, New York.

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Sadly, much of what Mr. Douglass spoke about 163 years ago remains true today. Racism and injustice are alive and well. Florida. Missouri. New York.  Maryland. Since 9 of our African-descended brothers and sisters were assassinated by a racist terrorist two weeks ago in Charleston, South Carolina, 7 black churches have burned. None of this is an attack on Christianity. It is an attack on black people. If you are white and don’t understand this fact, you haven’t read my books. Please do.

You can read the full text of Douglass’s speech here. Please do. Or you can watch Danny Glover read powerful excerpts from  Douglass’s speech here. Please do.

I hope you are as troubled and contemplative about Independence Day (and certain other American holidays) as I am.

Remembering Peter Norman: an oft-forgotten white man in the Black Power movement

Posted June 29th, 2015 by Tom

I remember the moment well. I was 14-years old. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were astounding. I was a fledgling long- and high-jumper in junior high school. When Bob Beamon broke the long jump world record – not by inches, but by almost two FEET – it became one of the most amazing moments in sports history; and certainly inspired this skinny, little, long jump aspirant.

1968But that’s not the “I remember the moment well” I refer to in the paragraph above. The iconic moment that lives forever from the 1968 games is the medal awards ceremony for the men’s 200-meter race. Tommie Smith won gold. John Carlos, bronze. They stood on the podium with heads bowed and black-gloved hands raised high in an act of defiance to highlight, and protest against, racist injustice in the United States.

The white guy who won the silver medal? Who stands in front of them? That’s Peter Norman. He’s the Australian sprinter who won silver. What I never knew until I learned about it on Facebook, is on the left breast of his jacket he wore a small badge that read: “Olympic Project for Human Rights” – an organization set up a year earlier  to oppose to racism in sports.

Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympics for life. But they became instant heroes in the black community for sacrificing personal glory for the greater good. History has also held them up as civil rights icons.

What isn’t well known in the United States is that Peter Norman became a pariah in Australia. Though his time in 1968 would have earned Gold in Munich in 1972, he was ostracized and never ran in the Olympics again. When Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, Norman – the greatest Olympic sprinter in Australian history – wasn’t invited to participate in any capacity.

When he died of a heart attack in 2006, guess who eulogized him and helped carry his coffin? John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

He paid the price. This was Peter Norman’s stand for human rights, not Peter Norman helping Tommie Smith and John Carlos out,” said Smith. “He just happened to be a white guy, an Australian white guy, between two black guys in the victory stand believing in the same thing.”

Here’s to Peter Norman. Thank you for standing tall for justice and freedom.

(Read more about this inspiring story here)

No indictment (and, sadly, no surprise) in death of Eric Garner

Posted December 3rd, 2014 by Tom

So let me see if I understand what just happened…

  1. Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City police officer in July
  2. The NYC Police Department prohibits the use of choke holds
  3. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide
  4. and the grand jury will not indict the officer involved.

Is that about it?

Again the system has failed us. “How? How? I don’t know how.

– Jewell Miller, who has an infant daughter with Eric Garner.

Eric-Garner-Michael-BrownAll true. A New York grand jury failed to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, this past July. Sadly, I’m not surprised. After the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri failed to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, it’s what I expected.

And black people across the United States are reconfirmed in the knowledge that their lives are less valuable than the lives of white people. The lack of trust in law enforcement by black people grows stronger. And many white folks don’t understand. And the wide gulf between us grows wider; seemingly insurmountable. Read the rest of this entry »

Yes, Bill O’Reilly, there IS such a thing as White Privilege

Posted October 19th, 2014 by Tom

or: “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see”

StewartO'Reilly(Oct2014)Jon Stewart asked a simple question of Bill O’Reilly on The Daily Show, on October 15, 2014. “Here’s all I want from you today. I want you to admit that there is such a thing as White Privilege.”

Mr. O’Reilly responded, “There is not.”

He proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes explaining that slavery is over, Jim Crow is over, that was then, this was now, the most powerful man in the world is a black man, the most powerful woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey, is a black woman, and if you work hard, get educated, and are an honest person you can succeed…”

O’Reilly admitted to growing up in an all-white community, Levittown, in Long Island, NY, where World War II veterans – white veterans – were able to secure home loans through the G.I. Bill. Black veterans were not allowed to live in Levittown. O’Reilly acknowledged no residual disadvantages existing today for Black Americans as a result of conditions in existence six decades ago (let alone two centuries ago).

But as was pointed out in “This is what the legacy of ‘white privilege’ looks like in Bill O’Reilly’s hometown” in the Washington Post, Read the rest of this entry »

Can you handle an honest conversation about race?

Posted May 4th, 2014 by Tom

Clippers_SterlingVisiting our son’s family in Maryland, including our new, 1-month-old grandson, I sat down on Sunday morning with the Washington Post. In it I read Jonathan Capehart’s opinion piece, “That honest conversation about race everyone wants? We can’t handle it.” It’s one of the best commentaries I’ve read in a while about the difficulty navigating “race talk.” Here are a couple of teaser quotes to encourage you to read the article:

“God bless Donald Sterling. The octogenarian owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was caught on tape doing the one thing we all need to do. He talked openly and honestly with a trusted friend about race.”

and

“In politics, there is even less room for frank discussions of prejudice or for even talking about race, especially on the GOP side of the aisle.”

I work for the organization Coming to the Table. We provide leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery. My friend Sharon Morgan and I wrote about “living” the Coming to the Table model together over a 3-year period in our book Gather at the Table.

Coming to the Table has members and supporters throughout the United States. It isn’t always easy or pretty, but we are engaged in an honest conversation about race. Our mission is to inspire more people to do the same. Learn more here. Join our Facebook group here.

(photo from U-T San Diego, (c) Associated Press)

Gather at the Table authors record Gettysburg Address for PBS site

Posted November 19th, 2013 by Tom

This post was originally published at Gather at the Table

 

LincolnSilhouetteNovember 19, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. PBS and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns launched a national effort to encourage people to video record themselves reciting President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, one of the most important statements on human equality in American history.

Sharon Morgan and I participated in the project, as have President Obama, Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Spielberg, and many others. You can watch our video at the Learn the Address website on PBS. Or you can watch it below from the Gather at the Table YouTube page.

We hope our participation will raise more awareness of the Coming to the Table approach to acknowledging and healing wounds from racism and the legacy of slavery that Sharon and I wrote about in Gather at the Table.

And may we all now re-dedicate ourselves “to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”

12 Years a Slave

Posted November 10th, 2013 by Tom

12-years-a-slave-001.jpg_rgbMy wife Lindi and I went to see 12 Years a Slave yesterday. It wasn’t a film I wanted to see. It was a film I needed to see. It is harsh and searing and honest in its depiction of the institution of slavery in the United States. I hope (and encourage in particular) my white friends will watch this important film. 12 Years a Slave is now a key resource to understanding the traumatic wounds – physical, psychological, and spiritual – inflicted upon black people for the benefit of white people, and inflicted upon white people (whether directly or indirectly connected with the system of enslavement); wounds that have never been healed, have been passed down through generations, and continue to cause harm to all of us today.

My second request is you read the words of my Gather at the Table writing partner and friend Sharon Leslie Morgan. She wrote “400 Years a Slave” on her Our Black Ancestry blogsite after experiencing 12 Years a Slave the day before we did. I read Sharon’s words (click here) before we went to the theater, and again after we returned home. Her story is as powerful and haunting to me as the film because Sharon’s family lived and suffered and died in slavery and its racist aftermath. When white people make the effort to sincerely understand and acknowledge the experience and feelings of people of color as regards these historic wounds, and to understand how white people were and are wounded, and the present-day consequences of this damage, we take our first real step toward healing.

 

Irony snags Texas A.G. in Voter I.D. snafu

Posted November 6th, 2013 by Tom

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Wouldn’t it be an ironic twist of fate if racist, right wing efforts at voter suppression end up backfiring by preventing conservative white voters from voting?

From the “things don’t always go as planned” department…

I got a chuckle when I read (here) about Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott having trouble voting due to the very Voter I.D. law he supported!

Abbott, a Republican, “was among the most vocal proponents of the state’s new voter ID law, which requires all voters to present valid identification at the polls.

“But when Abbott showed up to vote, there was a problem: although he is registered to vote as Greg Abbott, his driver’s license identifies him as Gregory Wayne Abbott. Thus, under the law he staunchly defended, he would be unable to vote.

Thankfully for Abbott and others in similar cases, he was still able to cast his ballot thanks to a provision added by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. According to Davis’ amendment, voters whose names are similar on their voter registration and ID card may still vote if they sign an affidavit confirming their true identity.”

Voter I.D. laws are about suppressing the vote, not about preventing fraud. Such laws are a thinly veiled tool being employed to disenfranchise voters who tend to be poor and people of color; people who tend to not vote for Republicans. Read more here and here.

After reading about Abbott’s experience at the voting booth, a distant cousin of mine, Christy DeWolf, wrote on Facebook, “I’m thinking too…. this law is going to prevent his Tea Party supporters from voting. I don’t really see Tea Party types signing government affidavits to exercise their constitutional rights to vote.” Interesting… I wonder how many anti-government, ultra-conservative, tea-party-supporting white people will rebel against providing the types of I.D. being required by the government in order to vote?

Ah, irony, your sense of humor is indeed twisted!

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry