Swimming in the Muddy Pond of Racism by Suan McCormack

  My dad, Don McCormack teaching a class at Skidmore College 1971

My dad, Don McCormack teaching a class at Skidmore College 1971

I grew up in a household where black people were venerated.  My dad was a jazz musician and a lover of jazz and soul music.  As a teenager, unbeknownst to his parents, he and his friends would ditch school, hop on the train from Connecticut to NYC and sneak into the clubs to hear some of the greatest musicians of all time: Miles Davis; John Coltrane; Thelonious Monk.  During my early childhood my Dad wrote his dissertation on the Black Power movement. Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, LeRoi Jones and other African American thought leaders of the time were household names. Later on, my dad started teaching Black Studies at Skidmore College, created the Skidmore Jazz Institute and brought the Boys Choir of Harlem to campus for a month each summer for almost two decades.   

In my 14th year, the first group of former inmates from a maximum security prison in upstate New York became full time students at the college.  For several years, these guys, most of them black or brown, were a constant presence at our house at all hours of the day or night, and I got to know them intimately, hear their stories, watch some of them succeed against the odds.  A few years later, my sister married her college sweetheart, a black man, and their two children have grown up with mine. Despite evidence to the contrary (white high school friends who snuck over to our house to see their black friends, against their parents wishes, stories of oppression from my dad’s students of color), I believed that our country was making huge progress, that the gross inequities suffered by African Americans were in the past.  Most of all, I believed my particular experiences had inoculated me against racism and prejudice. I was wrong.

About fifteen years ago I was flying home from a trip.  During this period I was flying around the country a lot, helping communities organize inclusive community dialogues about a wide range of issues, including racism and race relations.  On this particular trip, I found myself sitting next to an older African American gentleman. I remember he wore a bowtie and a sweater, he had a kind face, a nice smile and for some reason he kind of reminded me of Mister Rogers.  We struck up a warm conversation about the weather, where our trips had taken us, where we were headed. Then we found out that we lived, not just in the same Vermont town, but in the same neighborhood. I didn’t realize it at the time, but at this point in the conversation, I was about to say something that would change everything, cause harm, put up an insurmountable wall between us.  My seatmate stated that he like our neighborhood ok, except for the many racist incidents that he and his wife experienced. I raised my eyebrows, I looked at him in disbelief, I said, “really?”

His face changed immediately.  The warmth left it. His gaze shifted from me to the seat in front of him and we continued the rest of the flight in silence.  At the time, I wasn’t sure what had happened. It didn’t take me long to find out. Shortly after that encounter I had several experiences where I witnessed first hand people saying and doing blatantly racist and offensive things towards people of color, right in my neighborhood.

These experiences left me shaken.  They helped me begin to understand the damage caused by my unintentionally racist denial on the airplane.  I saw that by failing to acknowledge the truth of my seat mate's experience, I was rubbing salt in a very large wound.  What’s especially hard about this story is that I should have known better, shouldn’t have been surprised about these experiences.  I began to wonder, how is it possible given my personal and professional experiences that I could continue to deny reality? And, even more troubling, why did I cling especially hard to my denial when reality showed up in my own neighborhood?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about it this way.   Its as if our country has been built around a deep and muddy pond.  Inside the pond is a toxic stew; the legacy of slavery and racism in all its forms including centuries of institutional policies and practices (Jim Crow segregation, housing discrimination, predatory lending, unfair hiring practices, unfair sentencing practices, biased college admissions policies).  Because of this legacy, between the muddy waters of the pond and the dry ground above, there are huge gaps in wealth, employment, student achievement, life expectancy.

African Americans and other people of color have been swimming in this dirty water for hundreds of years.  Many have drowned. Some have become excellent swimmers. In fact, many people in these inhospitable waters have come together to build amazing life rafts; create strong communities organized around religion, education, arts, culture.  They have become resilient, continuing to make significant and enduring contributions to our country, all the while navigating the stresses of having to work constantly to stay afloat.

In the meantime, white people are on the edge of the pond, benefitting from the wealth that was first created by native and enslaved people and the privileges that hundreds of years of racist laws, policies and practices have solidified.  A lot of the time we try not to look down, preferring to gaze across at the white people on the other side. It's kind of lonely on the edge of the pond. It's not set up so that we can easily be in community with each other. In fact, we’ve given up a lot to be on these banks.  In my case, I’m completely disconnected from my Irish, Italian and Jewish heritage. My great grandparents stopped speaking their native languages, burned our family tree in a fire, replaced every Jewish observance with a strange Christmas celebration, didn’t pass along any musical traditions and left me with one meager recipe to pass along to my children.   Even so, it’s pretty comfortable up here. That is, until something happens (like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the awful video images of unarmed black people being killed by police officers, the rise of hate crimes and white supremacists in recent years, or a threatening encounter at a local store) that causes us to fall into the water.

So, what happens when white people fall in this water?  We can’t swim! It’s foreign and scary and we start thrashing around.  And imagine our arrogance, when sputtering and splashing, we try to reach out to our friends of color in there and say “hi, I’m here to help!   And, here’s another thing that happens. We get the hell out of the water as fast as possible….escape back to the relative comfort of the edge - but once we’ve been in the water, living on the edge is a lot less comfortable and it is easier to fall back in the next time we witness injustice.

So, my question to myself has become, how do I learn to stay in this pond and to help transform it from a toxic stew to a life giving liquid.  Here’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to understand this water. I try to listen carefully to my family, friends and colleagues who are people of color so I can continue to build a better, deeper understanding of life in and around the pond.  I look for other white people in the water so we can build community to help us function in there with our eyes and hearts open to the reality we find. I read books and articles, watch movies, engage in conversations, take an unflinching look at our country’s history.  Now that I’m getting to be a better swimmer, I’m able to start working with others to create changes in how we are with each other, and to help create larger changes in the traditions, practices, policies, and laws that have polluted this water.

When I do these things, I need to try to have a little humility and to know that people of color will always be better swimmers than me.  I need to have patience with myself and others, keep calm when I make mistakes, and develop a thick skin so the frustration and anger of some people of color who don’t want me in the water, and the defensiveness of white people who are trying to avoid falling in, don’t deter me from moving forward.

I know this all sounds like a lot of work, and it is.  I’d like to say I never get out of the pond, but that wouldn’t be true.  It’s more true to say that I try to stay in as much as possible. So, what keeps me in the water?  A few things. The love I have for the people of color in my life. I’m sick of being separated from them, unable to fully bridge the divide between us that our racist legacy has wrought.  I stay in because I don’t think things will change until a critical mass of people are in there together. I stay in because I am passionate about the experiment that is America and I want us to continue to work to form “a more perfect union.”

And finally, I stay in because of the example my father set for me.   He didn’t wring his hands. He didn’t feel guilty. He didn’t see himself as advancing a great and important cause.   My dad simply acted on his interests and his commitment to the basic idea of fairness. He leveraged the resources at his disposal and took actions to create the change he wanted to see.  With this simple attitude, maybe we can all find a way to stay in the pond and work together to transform these muddy waters.








An Encounter With Hope by Suan McCormack

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A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a complete stranger.  He was traveling all fifty states with his family. He was in Vermont and wanted to meet with me to hear the story of my life and my work.

I soon realized that if we were to meet, I was most interested in hearing his story.  Here is what I knew from our brief correspondence.  A successful political consultant for conservative Republicans, he realized that maybe he had done his job too well; that the politics of division may have helped win many elections but this approach also led to a corrosive sort of politics dominated by fear.  This dawning awareness, along with a courageous dose of self-reflection and prayer (he and his wife are devout Christians), led him and his wife to quit their jobs, sell their house, and leave their comfortable life in a small, white, middle class Texas town. They packed up an RV and set out on a yearlong journey with their three young children.  Undivided Nation was born.  David and Erin had a big goal.  They hoped to understand the political divide and figure out how to bring unity to the nation.  Their journey has taken an unexpected turn. More about that later.

So, would I talk to this guy?  Of course I would. First, though, I needed him to know something about me.  If I was going to invite this stranger into my home, I needed him to know that I have a wife, not a husband as he might expect.  I e-mailed the invitation and waited. I didn’t hear back right away. I wondered if maybe his brand of Christianity just couldn’t accommodate the reality of my life.  It was a painful waiting, a fear of being rejected before ever being seen and known.

The next day, though, the response came through, and David accepted my invitation to come to our home the next day.  I would make us lunch.

Over a two hour period and grilled cheese sandwiches we talked.  The words couldn’t come fast enough. Hearing the story of David’s transformation was beautiful.  He began Undivided Nation with the thought that he and Erin were going to listen carefully to stories of the political divide and figure out ways to mend it.  That’s not the story that has unfolded. Twenty-four states in, David and Erin have heard stories of a terrible divide; a divide that has had a profound impact on people’s experiences, their prospects for success, whether they and their children live or die.  This is not the political divide they expected to learn about, but the racial divide in our country. David’s exposure to these stories, stories he never heard in his white, middle class bubble in small town Texas, jeopardized his lifelong view that America is the land of opportunity; that anyone can succeed by the “bootstrap” method of hard work and determination.  Through careful and courageous listening, David and Erin are learning how the racist systems our country was founded on have created significant obstacles for many brown and black Americans.

Unlike David, my life circumstances exposed me to people of diverse backgrounds and experiences from a young age.  In fact, I have been a student of these systems for many years.  If you take the time to look, you can see the legacy of hundreds of years of laws, policies, practices, and attitudes that were foundational to our country’s beginnings, and have continued in various forms over the years to perpetuate the status quo.  The racial divide is harsh, profound, and in stark relief in our current national consciousness. It is laid bare by the country’s reaction to our first black president and the rhetoric and actions of what some refer to as our first “white” president.  

If you love this country and believe in the promise of our founding documents, our present reality is almost unbearable to come to terms with, especially for white Americans like me and David.  If I am honest, I have to admit that at times I continue to cling to the mythology of America; to romanticize our progress despite ample evidence to the contrary. This is a dubious luxury that people of color don’t have.  The reality isn’t just around them, it is impacting people of color directly, daily. Even though it is tempting for white people to turn away from this reality, it seems as if an awakening is occurring among many white Americans.  We are helped along on this path by a plethora of insightful books, podcasts, blogs, and videos.  

Once we realize that the systems designed to disadvantage some of us, end up disadvantaging all of us, aren’t we compelled to take action to change the status quo? The next question becomes, what sort of action should we take?  So much needs to change. For David and Erin, Undivided Nation is their unique contribution.

Without David’s journey, I wonder if he would have accepted my invitation to meet me and see my ordinary life with my wife.  We are all so much more than the characteristics and systems that are used to divide us up. Until we sit down across from each other and share our stories though, how will we ever know?

The Students Are Watching by Suan McCormack

 PHOTO CREDIT: Jonathan Drake/Reuters

PHOTO CREDIT: Jonathan Drake/Reuters

These kids are going to make this difference because the adults let us down.
— Emma Gonzalez, Florida student

After the February 14, 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, courageous students who just endured the unthinkable are stepping up to create a movement for change and hold the adults accountable.

Some adults are already behaving badly.  It is easy to find comments on social media criticizing the students who are stepping forward; attacking their activism, their ideas for reform; questioning their facts.  Some suggest that the claim that eighteen mass shootings have happened in the first two months of 2018 is an inflated number.  How many mass shootings would be acceptable?  Ten?  Five?  I’m sure the students from Parkland, Florida would say zero.  Now, you might expect this essay to veer into a discussion about gun control, but that’s not where I’m going.  

Instead, I want to focus on what the adults can do to support our students in their efforts to create change.  First, let’s remember that the students from Parkland Florida are not just brave, they are also traumatized.  The last thing they need is to be attacked for their views and the solutions they are putting forward.  They need to be listened to.  If we don’t agree,  let’s listen harder.  If we have other ideas for how change might occur, lets share them in a respectful way that doesn’t demean someone else’s point of view.  As one of the students from Florida put it , “we can't get into any more debates. We need discussion.”

In fact, we need a dialogue; a “conversation with a center, not sides.”   I know it is hard for us to listen to one another.  We quickly become polarized and closed off to possibilities.  We must do better.  Like many of our  most vexing problems, eliminating mass shootings is going to require authentic conversations and multiple approaches.   Some actions might be fairly straightfoward to implement.  Others may be more nuanced, and still others will require the kind of creative thinking that is not possible unless we really listen to each other.

Let’s support students and their allies as they demand legislative action.  At the same time, let’s remember that students and adults can also leverage our power and passion to create the change we want to see in our own neighborhoods, schools and communities.  All we need to begin is a real grown-up conversation; a conversation that doesn’t revert to tired old ideological debates, or simplistic all or nothing thinking.  One that is bold enough to wade through the discomfort of facing the sad realities of our present situation.

Whether we are going to be marching with students or talking with people close to home, here are four simple questions to get the conversation going:

  1. Why do we think school shootings happen in our country?

  2. What can students do to help change this?

  3. What can communities do to help change this?

  4. What can lawmakers do to help change this?

Once we’ve entered into these conversations, let’s look to our students.  They have the know how to organize and share our collective ideas with the world. Let’s see what rises to the surface.  Let’s identify areas where consensus is emerging.  Let’s identify the energy and will to create the change we need.  We can do this.  The students are watching.  

Susan McCormack, Creative Discourse

Young Vermonters Lead Us Towards Justice by Suan McCormack

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In my work with communities, I always make it a priority to ensure that young people have a meaningful seat at the table.  The presence and participation of young people always leads to better outcomes.  Young people often bring a level of innovation, openness, and uncompromising commitment to their core values that is helpful for the adults in the room.  These more experienced people sometimes carry with them a history that bends towards pessimism about what’s possible.  

During this particular moment in time, when many people are tempted towards pessimism, Vermont’s young people are stepping up and leading us forward in truly creative and courageous ways.  This is especially true when it comes to addressing issues of race, ethnicity, class and social justice.  Vermont has always prided itself on its history of being the first; the first state to abolish slavery, the first state to legalize same sex marriage through the legislature, the first state to ban fracking.  Most of these firsts, though, come with a backlash, and both the push forward and the backlash are being felt very acutely right now, magnified by the divisiveness of our national politics and the implementation of new policies that target the “other” (immigrants, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, the poor).  History has shown that this kind of backlash often happens during times of tremendous change.  As the rise of vast forces such as technology, globalization, the changing climate, and a large number of displaced people around the globe sweep over us, fear is with us and so is the backlash.  

In the midst of this turmoil, Vermont’s young people are standing up in creative and courageous ways to share their voices, their hopes and dreams, and their vision for a more just world.  They are working hard to address racism, injustice, climate change, and to raise awareness of our shared humanity.

Several powerful examples come to mind immediately.  Muslim Girls Making Change work to break down stereotypes and fight for social justice through slam poetry.   Trained peer leaders from Essex Middle School teach a class at UVM about race and ethnicity.  Student leaders at Montpelier High School spend a year learning and studying together to prepare to fly the Black Lives Matter flag during Black History Month.  Young people take the lead during the recent Women’s March in Montpelier.  South Burlington High School student Isaiah Hines is named the Vermonter of the Year by the Burlington Free Press as he “worked to raise racial awareness among his fellow students and pushed the School Board to take definitive action. Hines stepped up when the … adults in the room fell short.”  

In a state that is predominantly white, it is worth pausing to notice how many of these young leaders are people of color.  Their leadership takes a particular kind of courage because of the racism they live with every day.  You may not want to believe that these students experience racism but I can share with you from my own personal observations over many years, and from conversations with people of color who live in Vermont, that racist comments, policies and traditions are an oppressive daily presence in many lives.  At the same time, during the recent march in Montpelier, several students of color spoke of their love for Vermont and the support they’ve received from peers, teachers, and families.  It is hopeful to contemplate that amid the intolerance, racism and bigotry that exists here, there is another side to the story as well.  Students of color are working together with white students, educators and community members of goodwill to find powerful ways to share their experiences, and their hopes for the future.

Vermont’s young people have much to be proud of.  They are standing up and speaking out during this most important time.  Despite the hateful comments, the hurtful backlash, and even the threats, young Vermonters are sharing the message that they care about the planet, justice, fairness, and our shared humanity.  Our young people have so much to teach us.  I hope we can listen.

Susan McCormack

Photo Credit: Vermont Public Radio

A Force for Good by Suan McCormack

I don’t often feel hopeless but this morning was an exception. The news of the day filled me with despair. Then, tonight, I watched a documentary about John Coltrane that my dad recommended to me. Listening to Coltrane’s music was a balm, like a homecoming, especially since this music was the soundtrack of my childhood from my earliest memories. Even if you have never listened to this music, the story of Coltrane’s life is redemptive. His genius, his connection with Spirit, his desire to help others feel that connection and experience the unity of life is compensatory. Not that he shied away from the brutality of our country’s racist and violent past. He addressed all of it through his music. Towards the end of the movie, he is quoted as saying “I know there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.” I am thankful for the reminder that we can always make a personal choice to be a force for good. I am thankful that John Coltrane was with us for forty years, and thankful for this beautiful accounting of his life and his music.

 

 

 

A Letter to My Family the Morning After Fear Trumped Love by Alex Gaydos

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This morning I woke up in a country that feels foreign and scary, that isn’t what I thought it was, and yet, of course it’s exactly the country I know it is.

Its as if the boil of racism that has been festering on the back of America for hundreds of years has been laid open and the poison is flowing out.  The poison must come out, and it makes sense that now is the time.  We elected our first black president, twice, and though he saved us from the brink of a terrible depression, inspired us with his words, modeled to us what it means to be devoted to family and country, he was opposed by people who couldn’t shake off hundreds of years of conditioning that led them to feel a deep sense of unease, a distrust that this person with brown skin and a foreign sounding name, could be what he seemed.  Add to that the uncertainties of the world: the rise of terrorism; globalization; the growing wealth gap; climate change, and along comes a figure like Donald Trump and the legacy of our past has burst forth.  It’s so painful.  And it’s so tempting to vilify all those people who voted for Trump. To label them racists, bigots, misogynists, ignorant.  Sadly, though, our racial history and present uncertainties have created a circumstance where people are just trying to hold on to their sense of themselves, to navigate huge forces that are beyond their control, to make sense of their “dis ease” by blaming others.

It’s a profoundly frightening moment but we cannot give in to fear.  And we can’t just write all of these people off as “deplorables.”  We have to find the courage to make connections at the very moment we might want to despair, to hunker down and hide ourselves away.

Here’s what gives me courage.  Our beautiful family!  Think about who we are!  We are white and black.  We are descended from immigrants who came to this country to find a better life.  We are descended from Native Americans and enslaved African Americans.  We are straight and gay.  Some of us made it as far as high school, others of us hold PhDs.  Among us, we are driven by the most diverse range of passions: to the land; to financial success; to art; to education; to health and fitness; to innovation; to community.

We aren’t a perfect family, but think about the deep and enduring love and affection we have for one another.  Think about what a miracle our family is.  The miracle isn’t how unique and special we are, but how ordinary we are.  We are an American family, and there are plenty of families just like ours, a microcosm of our country, a living example that our lives have a richness and meaning and strength because of our diversity.

So please don’t despair.  I won’t pretend that Trump cares about anything other than himself.  Let’s hope that Trump’s extreme need for approval will shift from his desire to win a presidential contest,  to a desire to be a decent president.  And, if that doesn’t happen, and he continues to be a dangerous, divisive figure, let’s make sure we don’t get infected with the poison of our racist past.   Let’s turn off the media for a while, and talk to each other.  Then, let’s refuse to vilify our fellow citizens.  Let’s build relationships with those who hold different views.  Most importantly, let’s continue to support and love each other.

Sara and Amanda, keep on being happily married, and planning joyously for your future.  Sam, keep working towards your big and bold entrepreneurial dreams.  Alex, keep leaning in to art and faith and all that sustains you.  Ellyn, keep on working the land and turning your unsentimental gaze and unique voice into words.

Mom and Dad, keep the faith that this little tribe you preside over will continue to flourish.  We will dig deep and find the courage to walk away from fear and towards a “more perfect union”” even in the unlikeliest of times.  

The Secrets of Our Neighborhood Exposed by A Little Free Library by Alex Gaydos

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About a year ago we installed a Little Free Library on the front lawn of our house. Our Little Free Library is an unofficial one. We installed it on the corner of our property with little fanfare and never registered it. As a consequence, the library is not part of the (admittedly very cool) network of Little Free Libraries all around the world. Instead, our library is a decidedly micro affair, reflecting something really wonderful…the kindness, generosity and quirkiness of our neighborhood.

The library is much more than a decorated little box that holds some books. It actually has a personality, a presence, a certain kind of soulfulness about it. Here are some surprising things I’ve noticed about the library.

  • It is completely self-sustaining. We don’t add, subtract, or curate the contents.
  • It attracts visitors most days, no matter what the weather.
  • It welcomes people of all ages who arrive on purpose or by mistake.
  • It showcases all the ways people get around our neighborhood. They walk up (with kids, baby strollers, dogs, friends, spouses or alone), ride up (on a bike, scooter, skateboard, or roller skates) or drive up (who would have guessed so many people would actually drive up in a car to get or give a book).

Looking in the library is like unwrapping a present. There is always something unexpected inside. Many times a classic children’s book will appear, and evoke all those beloved bedtime stories I shared with my kids. Sometimes the library is heavy on mysteries or reference books or philosophy or poetry, or really cheesy romance novels. Right now the library is housing multiple books related to Princess Diana and the royal family (who knew we had royal family enthusiasts in the neighborhood)?  Frankly, I’m surprised at the breadth and depth of our neighborhood’s store of books.

One of my favorite Little Free Library moments this year was seeing an old, slightly tattered copy of Stephen King’s “The Stand.” This instantly brought me back to the comfort I received escaping into that book during the summer of one of my uneasy teenage years. Several days later, I saw a young woman, alone, in the window of our local sandwich shop with that very book in her hand. I don’t know why it made me so happy. Maybe it was imagining her face when she found the book in the library.

Or maybe it was realizing how many of these small moments of connection the library has made possible; the realization that something so simple, and generous, and kind, as sharing a book could cause someone to have a new insight, a good laugh, or a cry. Or maybe just a moment when the world, which is “too much with us; late and soon” fades away just a bit and allows some new possibility to come through.

Work is Love Made Visible by Alex Gaydos

This quote from Kahlil Gibran hangs on the wall in my office, an aspiration that I don’t always keep in the forefront of my mind. Every once in a while, though, life presents an opportunity to do something important, to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself.

Right now, I’m in the middle of such a moment. For the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Creating Community Solutions to help people all around the country who want to bring their community together to talk about mental health. This is not an easy topic, but it’s an important one that affects 1 in 4 people.

Young people are especially affected, and during this effort, a new idea called Text, Talk, Act was born. Text, Talk, Act combines text messaging, social media and face to face dialogue to help young people share their stories with each other, help a friend and make their voices heard. So far, thousands of young people in all 50 states have participated in conversations about mental health with their friends and peers.

At the forefront of this movement are a group of young adults on college campuses and in high schools who have stepped up to organize Text, Talk, Act dialogues in their communities. Many of these young people have had their own mental health challenges. So have I. To work with these people, to watch them transform adversity into strength and courage and advocacy is something I wouldn’t want to miss.

So…once again this spring, I am working with an amazing team to grow this movement and bring this opportunity for an authentic conversation to as many people as possible. Our team is passionate and creative and producing beautiful things in the service of this movement.

One beautiful manifestation of our Text, Talk, Act effort is a short video made by Kayhl Cooper. This film so beautifully captures what this is all about. It reminds me of the potential of what we are doing. In a time of disconnection and loneliness and isolation we are leveraging technology to create spaces all over the country where people can be together and talk about something personal, something that actually matters, something that can change a life

These dialogues can connect us, and change us, and activate us to work for something better in our own lives and in our communities. This work is love made visible, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.