Family Miscellaneous Teaching

No Bad Days

This morning, I started writing sitting on a seawall where my young son was fishing. Computer out, glasses on, skin tan, and my hair a little blonder because of sand and sea, I was reveling in my son’s fun, the beautiful water, enjoying a peaceful moment. A man came by and asked the following question: “What do you call a smart, beautiful, blonde?” Although I didn’t ask, he gave me an answer. “A golden retriever!” When I looked perplexed, he asked if I didn’t like jokes. I smiled and went back to my writing. He then asked if I wanted to hear something “a little bit dirty.” I declined and bid him adieu. Sexism at its finest. Yet, it always takes me off guard and I can never respond in the moment with the quick comeback that will put the offender in his place. The incident was all the more jarring sitting in such an idyllic spot.

Of course, not nearly as jarring than the day’s news. When we’re on vacation, my husband deletes Twitter from his phone and strongly requests that I not bring work along. I like to post pictures to Facebook mainly so our extended families can follow along on our adventures, a habit that keeps me connected to the strife that never seems to stop including this morning’s reports from Baton Rouge. Self-doubt floods in as I post pictures of stunning scenery and family fun while colleagues and friends are trying to help others understand why #all lives matter is an easy out from acknowledging systemic racism and its ever-spinning sequelae. I find myself asking is it okay to disengage for a while? Is it even possible?

“Self-care” is a term that was unknown to me when I was in my masters program; now, my students talk about it all the time. There is more recognition that social work and other helping professions takes a toll on our well-being and our effectiveness, a concern shared by colleagues in medicine, occupational therapy, and nursing among other disciplines. But the term, “self-care” doesn’t sit well with me. It conjures a box to be checked, an appointment on the calendar, something that happens a few weeks a year or for an hour a day, too discrete, too time-limited. Maybe this term is more about a longing for a way of being, a way to stay moored when the waves, whether small swells that throw us off-balance like the one I experienced this morning, or overwhelming seismic sea waves, that occur because of deep ruptures– think Baton-Rouge, Dallas, Baltimore, Stanford, Orlando, Nice — threaten to capsize our sense of purpose and meaning.

Two days ago I saw a window decal that said, “no bad days.” There is something about that simple statement that has been working on me and is teaching me something about weathering and, better yet, thriving in the ever-pounding surf. Perhaps it is a kind of mantra that might encourage me to stay engaged with the suffering of the world, denounce its savage idiocy when I must, and still celebrate its beauty and joy. Individuals who have confronted life-threatening illness often seem to understand that there are truly “no bad days.” They seem to know that as long as we live and breathe and have the great good fortune to work to make the “earth as it is in heaven,” then there are really no bad days. There are moments we may regret, lives lost that we mourn, changes to make, causes to champion, and always work to do. There will also be moments to cherish, wonder to find, and love to give. No bad days? No bad days.


Wings of Desire

As we collectively process the latest carnage, a comment from my husband sums up the situation: “Now, it’s time for 8 weeks of anguished conversation. Then everything will stay exactly the same.” If my Facebook feed is any indication, he’s right; it is filled with anguish: “Prayers for Orlando,” “We are Orlando,” and “Enough Praying, Do Something.” With rare exceptions, these calls force us to a dichotomous choice: Side A. advocate for gun policy reform Side B. send your thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. Camp A “politicizes tragedy” by asking politicians to do what they can to prevent future horrors. Camp B, the prayers, are labeled delusional and discounted. As we throw labels at one another the status quo is maintained.

So far, I’ve not responded. Not for a good reason but because I feel numb. I don’t feel shock or disbelief. The same script plays out with such freakish regularity that it’s no longer shocking. I don’t feel fear or worry for my family. If I did, how would I live? Stop working? Keep my children home from school? Move to Wyoming and live off the grid? Truthfully, I hardly generate a tear as I read the stories of children at Pulse texting their mothers before dying. I recognize these situations as horrible but with detachment now that we relive these awful scenarios almost every other month.

As a social worker, I recognize my numbness for what it is: a symptom, a way of coping with traumatizing experiences that are not going away and that I believe I am powerless to stop. I don’t like it and I tried to engage my older son to pull me out. He is into photography and I asked him if he wanted to attend a vigil in our town for the Orlando victims. I asked because I thought going would break through my numbness and I thought he’d like the idea of documenting the event. He said no telling me that he’d spent the day making a rock sculpture of “49 cairns” near our home. It was two hours before I realized the symbolism of what he’d done. That is numbness. How to break through it…

I’ve found myself thinking about the 1987 movie, “Wings of Desire.” Not the Nicolas Cage version, which I think, was called City of Angels, but rather the original, this one. In it, angels watch and comfort from a distance but cannot intervene to change events in human lives. They stand beside and make sure no event goes without witness, but cannot articulate all that they see and know. Eventually, one of the angels longs to become human, give up his all-knowingness, give up his distance and remove, because he has fallen in love with someone who does not recognize her own beauty. The angel is willing to give up immortality to be able to love, to suffer, and in so doing to feel joy. Before I had seen the movie, the story I heard about it was a little bit different. In that version the angel wanted to become human because he thought he could do more good as a mere mortal than as a divine being. I was told as much once by a client and her words have stayed with me for years.

We were in my office off the emergency room. I don’t remember why. She was telling me about her difficulties as a parent and of her faith that God was with her and would take care of her. I was probably 23 years old and completely shocked by the abject poverty in which the people I worked with lived. As I listened, I struggled to find a hopeful word and truthfully wondered about the utility of her faith at that moment. But I did my best to be encouraging and to validate her statements. “Yes ma’am. Of course He will. I know you are right.” She stopped abruptly, seeing my doubt, and said, “He will help me but He needs your hands. Don’t you forget that…” That indictment was at least 25 years ago and, in my recent numbness, I had almost forgotten, forgotten the difference that raised voice, an anguished prayer, a call to a legislator, or a work of art can make. I had become like the angels in the movie, willing to bear witness but seeing myself as unable to do much else. But I’m no angel and neither are you. We are all too human – broken, suffering, mired in the mundane, and yet extraordinary. It is not worth giving up no matter how frustrating or hopeless we feel. We must be Orlando. We must pray for Orlando. We must change our laws to prevent such horror. We must do all of it.

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Voices that Echo: A Memory of Buckner Fanning

Monday was a normal February day here in Chapel Hill. That is to say my children were home because of ice on the ground and my husband and I were alternately trying to keep things moving with our work and do things with them. As I was cooking chili, a message came through Facebook that the pastor of my childhood, Buckner Fanning, had died at 89. Tears sprang quickly and in keeping with Fredrick Buechner’s advice that tears are a means by which God gets our attention, I began remembering Buckner and his influence on my life.

He has not been well in recent years and his son has been posting video snippets from earlier days, some TV spots through which many San Antonians came to know him and bits of sermons preached at Trinity Baptist. When one comes up on my Facebook feed, I’ve been taking a minute to close my door and watch them. I’ve been struck by how comforting it is to hear his strong voice that acknowledges the very real difficulties of living and yet gives courage and hope to continue the journey. A few years ago the local paper in San Antonio did a profile on him, perhaps recognizing that this important figure’s time was near ( In that piece they chronicled Buckner’s long ministry and spoke of the ways in which he defied the orthodoxy of his time. There were things I didn’t know because I was a child growing up in his congregation. I did not know that he took a strong stand when he was called to Trinity saying that he would not pastor a segregated church. I remember some rumblings about his engagement with Catholic and Jewish leaders but did not realize how novel it was for him to do this or the courage it took to be ecumenical in a denomination that was drawing tighter lines by the day around what constituted faith and what did not.

For me, learning this background has helped me understand a bit more about my own choices. My choice of profession was directly tied to my faith. In fact the decision to apply to an MSW program literally dropped into my head during church my junior year in college. But the choice to engage in social justice issues, to work with vulnerable populations, to see commonalities versus divisions between religions, to reject absolutes, has been perplexing to some with whom I’ve grown up. It has strained friendships and sometimes made me feel distant and out of step with what was expected of me. But, in thinking and learning about Buckner and his legacy, I realize none of it was a radical departure; I was learning these values all along even when they were not overtly spoken.

Indeed, at least in my memory, Buckner rarely spoke about politics or politicized issues. There was only one time that I can recall and here is what he said. He stated that every four years, instead of looking for a president, America was actually looking for a savior and that we would never find that in any mortal. I don’t remember the rest of his sermon. Only that take-away and the implication that perhaps we should focus on candidates’ abilities to do the job before them versus whether they met every litmus test on every issue.

Buckner was also a neighbor. I grew up around the corner from where he and Martha raised their three children. We carpooled on occasion, brought meals to one another in case of illness, and waived in the street. The last time I saw him it was in this context and I had not seen him for many years. I was a stressed out new mother and assistant professor home with my 18 month old son for a visit. As for many kids that age, travel meant my little boy’s sleep cycle was thrown off. My son and I were up at an ungodly hour and I loaded him into his stroller for a sunrise walk around the neighborhood. Buckner was out for his morning run but happily stopped to chat. He said, “Mimi, you beautiful girl. How marvelous to see you.” (Marvelous is a word I associate with him.) Now truly, no sleep-deprived mother of an 18 month old is a “beautiful girl” at 6 a.m. But to him, I was as he saw me many years ago: when I interviewed him for my high school paper and he spent two plus hours with me so that I could finish the assignment, or when he wrote me letters of recommendation for college, or visited when my mother was sick, or talked to me when I was spiritually confused. So many kindnesses …

We continued our greetings and he met my oldest son. In his booming voice said, “What wonderful young man. He’s going to grow up and play football for Baylor!” Now the chances of my oldest son playing football for anyone are slim to none. But in Texas, this is high praise and a vote of confidence that somehow we would manage to raise that youngster to productive adulthood. Although the jury is still out on that, those brief words gave me hope that I could make motherhood and professorship work. They also communicated that I was known, loved, and gave me reassurance that should I ever want or need to come home there would be a place for me.
Finally, I thought of Buckner this fall as we celebrated my own father’s 95th birthday. We had a celebration for my dad and I had the happy job of opening the evening with a toast. Buckner’s words came pouring out. One father’s day probably in the late 1970s, he preached a sermon in which he said that fathers, knowingly or not, gave their children a vision of God. If the father was capricious and temperamental that child would have difficulty believing in God at all; the world would seem too unpredictable to allow for this possibility. If the father was harsh, the child’s vision of God would be one of judgement. Absent = distant and so on. But, if the father was like mine, full of patience and good humor, quick to forgive transgressions, willing to teach and guide, the child would see God as merciful and loving. I could not think of a better tribute to my father than to quote that sermon.

Saying good-bye to someone who has given so much to so many is never easy. A pastor that combines true intellect, deep integrity, genuine respect for people from all walks of life, with service and commitment is rare. It was my great good fortune to learn from him. Godspeed, Pastor Fanning and thank you.

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Remember Who You Are

Like most mornings, today I was out in the woods with our good dog, Bear. He is not yet two years old and lived “on the road” before he came to us about nine months ago. We are still working with him on not chasing every squirrel or deer he comes across. They are apparently terrible threats. This morning, he saw something that triggered the primal part of his brain to action. He began barking and pulling at the leash. In moments like this, it’s as if he doesn’t hear us when we call him back. Usually we call him back with fairly typical phrases. “No Bear. Come back. Leave it alone.” But today I said something to him more appropriate for my teenage son or, indeed, the mirror. “Stop. Remember who you are!”

We walked on and, laughing at myself, I began to reflect on my ridiculous command to him that encapsulates so much of what I want to say about the current conversation around Syrian refugees.

Most of us view ourselves as rationalists making our decisions based in facts and evidence. But as social psychologists have demonstrated many times over, much of our decision-making comes from emotions and intuitions that are virtually preconscious. The emotions come before our rational arguments meaning that our view of a particular issue may have no basis in fact. We’re good at pretending otherwise and we find rational means to back up what we already believe to be true. (Check out this book for more. ). Here’s an application.

We turn on the news to learn of attacks in Paris, a magical city that lives in our collective imagination. A rash of associations are triggered – terrorists, middle east, face-coverings, weapons, 9/11, London bombings, Charlie Hebdo – and we are aware of emotion first: shock, horror, powerlessness, fear, all emotions that threaten to immobilize us. What comes next? Different emotions: anger, vengeance, emotions that feel powerful and allow us to believe we can be in control. But what is it that we can control?

Can I, as an ordinary citizen, professor, or even a legislator control individuals that have grown up in Western democracies and turn against their countries? Nope. Can I control or even understand complex geo-political realities that, even when they are broken down as they are in this great piece  Not really. So then what’s left? Hmmm… admit a lack of control? That could equal despair. Search for something I can control? That sounds better. And what would that be in this situation? People that I associate with all those scary things triggered by the initial news. Even better these are people I don’t know and have no clear  obligation toward. Refugees from Syria that have been in the news every day for months.  Syria, the name alone brings to mind associations of anti-Americanism, dictatorship, a government that is threatening and out of America’s sphere of influence.  It feels so natural and so righteous to fight against Syria and, therefore Syrians. We look for arguments and spokespeople that justify what we want to believe in the first place. And all of a sudden we’re having “rational” arguments about why we should exclude some of the most vulnerable people on earth at the moment even though, as a country we do a great job at refugee screening, vetting, and resettlement. It’s so easy for these refugees that we don’t know and who can’t speak to us to become the focus of our anger, vengeance, and need for control. Our rationalizations are rooted in a desperate hope that using  exclusionary policies, completely not in keeping with our national or personal character, will keep our loved ones safe and our magical cities from toppling. In short, we bark loudly and try to chase the deer away.

Stop and remember who you are. Hopefully not a barking dog. You are someone who teaches your children to treat others as they want to be treated. You are someone who has volunteered at your local soup kitchen so that others might eat. You are someone who has given money to help others in need. You are someone who cares about those without a place to sleep. You are someone with ancestors who came to this country out of desperation. You are someone whose ancestors were displaced and persecuted here or elsewhere. You are someone who, at some point in your life, needed help and someone helped you. When you remember who you are then your course of action becomes clear regardless of all that you don’t know and can’t control. You act out of love, to welcome those who need you, to use your talents, your knowledge, your skills, your connections, and your compassion. You and I are not so helpless that we have bark at threatening deer. We claim our power and our peace by remembering who we are.


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Same Song, Different Verse, Same Refrain, Rest, Repeat

This past Tuesday was a typical, fall, morning. I was in class with my SOWO 845, final year, MSW students. During the second half we were hearing from a panel of practicing social workers – something that is a regular occurrence each time I teach this course. But on Tuesday the experience was different, not because of the conversation’s content but because of what was going on in my head.

The classroom has been reconfigured since I last taught in it. There is a podium from which the instructor can manage slides, activate a needed website etc. When the panel began, I was standing to the side of the podium because we were short on chairs. The students and panelists were engaged in a lively exchange when I noticed that there was a discreetly placed phone on the side of the podium. Instantly, the thought came to mind, “It’s there for an emergency, a mass shooting.” This thought spawned a reverie about how I could/would best protect my class and I felt guilty that I was thinking about an “unlikely event” rather than concentrating on every word being said.

The classroom has floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and a window in the door meaning that there is only one wall that could not be seen from looking in the door.   The windows have blinds that can be lowered and adjusted. That day they were lowered almost all the way down but not completely. So in order to have a chance of being safe if that phone rang, we’d have to get the blinds closed, the door locked, and everyone and their belongings hidden against the one wall that can’t be seen from the door or the fully covered windows. That way a gunman/person might possibly think the room was empty and we might be spared.

On Thursday, I didn’t feel so guilty about this thought pattern. The “unlikely event” had happened again, this time in Oregon, this time with Christians the apparent targets. Reading about the chaos of the Oregon shooting, I wondered whether I or anyone else would have the presence of mind to implement a safety plan. We don’t have lock down drills and mass shooter drills like they do in elementary, middle, and high schools now –drills that I hate the thought of because they seem potentially traumatizing in and of themselves.

While making dinner last night I spoke with my 14-year-old son. Despite his ups and downs, he is so tall, mature-looking, and smart that I sometimes forget how young he is and how things can still frighten him. We talked about Oregon while his younger brother, who is more anxious by nature, was out of the house ironically shooting nerf guns with the neighbors. The shooting came up in the context of something else – what I can’t even remember – and I told him there had been another mass shooting a school.  “There’s been another shooting; this time in Oregon.” He expressed shock that this could happen in a state where our family often vacations and has had such fun. Then he looked down, thoughtful and quiet. Last year in his 8th grade health class, he was made to watch footage from Columbine. He was so upset and terrified he couldn’t sleep, crying as he told me about it. They were going to watch more of the tape the next day and he couldn’t face it. I let him stay home long enough to miss that class. He used to have a black trench coat that he found at the surplus store. He liked to play “spy” in it. But we’d never let him wear it to school. After that footage, he told me he understood why. This morning, I sent him and his younger brother off to school. Please God…

So it goes apparently, no end in sight to such madness given entrenched positions and rhetoric. I’ll be in class next Tuesday. Perhaps I’ll talk with my students about what we should do in the “unlikely” event that we are faced with such terror. It seems to be all I can do.


To want

After 24 plus hours of thinking about the Charleston shooting, after watching the news spin the story in totally different directions based on political ideology, after wondering what to say, if anything, via social media, blog, or in person to my African-American friends and colleagues, after feeling inadequate and frustrated, I went to sleep and let myself dream. I dreamed of license plates with people holding guns and confederate flags. I dreamed of children hiding in fear while their elders were shot. I dreamed of troubled young men who find solace in violent and racist ideologies. I dreamed of outdated flags flying over statehouses and I woke up with one clear thought: I want.

I want this to stop. I want to stop hearing about mass shootings. I want to stop hearing about ideologies that use young mens’ vulnerabilities to incite them to violence. Whether the ideology is ISIS or white separatism, the strategy and result is the same. I want people to be sensible about gun ownership and availability. I grew up steeped in gun culture and I understand that my ranching friends in south Texas need weapons to shoot rattlesnakes when they are out tending cattle or to hunt deer that keep the cattle from having something to eat. But 21 year olds with no direction do not need weapons of any sort. They will surely hurt themselves or someone else. Twenty year olds living in suburban Connecticut do not need Bushmasters and Glocks. None of us do unless we’re on active duty in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

I want to stop having tailor made media: x, y, z media if I believe this way, a,b,c,media if I believe another way. To deal with our problems as society we need to agree on the same set of facts. And there are facts. We have good research on gun policy, mental health treatment, policing strategies, youth violence…the list is endless. But we have to use what we know to make things better. We can’t pick and choose which facts we deal with. That’s why we teach science to our children. We have to have a method for finding out what works and what doesn’t. I want us to use the good social science we have to benefit humanity.

And race. How I want to be the ally that I claim to be. I want to know how to affirm and learn from students, friends, colleagues, and those I meet in every interaction. I want to find the path that is not about being color-blind but is also not about taking on an identity that is not mine. I want to be able to acknowledge both the strengths of the culture I came from while not shying away from its, and my own, sins of omission and commission. I want to stop racist talk when I hear it in a way that preserves relationships and doesn’t ruin the dinner party and I want the courage to ruin the dinner party rather than be complicit in racism.

Most of all, I want those good, strong, people in Charleston to be alive. They were God’s agents in a wounded, hurting world. They came together in their Bible study for renewal and strength to keep fighting the good fight. They walked their talk by welcoming in the stranger. They were courageous and brave and victorious even in their sacrifice. The world is diminished without them although better because they were here. I want the same to be said for each of us.



For the last several days I’ve been watching events spiral evermore out of control in Baltimore feeling helpless and discouraged by yet another instance of police violence and sad, but not shocked, by the corresponding outrage and violence among young people in Baltimore. My first social work job was in East Baltimore and I well remember my first weeks there in the summer of 1988. I was as confused as I’d ever been in my life. Talking with mothers who could not get landlords to do anything about mice infestations in their homes; being paged back from lunch because a baby found in a dumpster would shortly be arriving in the ER; talking with a mother whose 13 year old son had hidden under a car to avoid police dogs that had been unleashed on him; sorting out six siblings abandoned for drugs to the care of the oldest, age 4, for four days; putting a young woman in a taxi because she was too afraid to leave the hospital at 6 pm because her leg had been grazed by a bullet the previous week. She showed me the hole in her jeans to prove it. The anecdotes are endless.
At that time, legitimate industry in Baltimore was in decline and the drug trade was on the way up. The young people I knew had fathers and uncles that had made careers in the steel industry and the shipping yards. Many young men who were un-invested in school would say to me, “I can always get a job down at “the point.” They meant Sparrow’s Point, the huge steel plant that was in decline and would be completely dismantled by 2012. See this story in the Baltimore Sun for more on its history.

I tried to communicate that such options probably would not be open to them; that without a high school diploma at a minimum, legal work would likely mean a service sector job, not a job that paid a living wage, had benefits, or allowed them to provide a decent existence for a family. But just as my teen age son doesn’t completely believe the doom and gloom stories I tell him when he’s not doing what he’s supposed to, these young men didn’t really believe me either. And the lure of easy money and tough guy personas was strong and standing right outside their front doors.
Couple these temptations with the realities of the “education” these young people were being given in public schools. One young woman who had made it through high school with straight As and started at a local community college, sat in my office devastated because she had been told she would need to take remedial classes before she could possibly do college level work. Juxtapose this with a friend who was attempting to teach middle school in a neighboring and equally troubled community, who was asked by his principal, “How could this student get a D? He/she came to class each day,” implying that the quality of the student’s worked mattered not at all.

Systems failed right and left. When a 15 year boy came to my office asking for help after he hit his girlfriend for the first time, I had to call, cajole, and finally threaten to call the press in order for the domestic violence shelter that ran groups for male batters to even talk to him. They wanted to “assess his sincerity.” Likewise, a police detective that told me a twelve year old girl brought a gang rape on herself because she voluntarily skipped school and went to the home of a 17 year old acquaintance. (I told him it didn’t matter if she had walked in completely naked.) Then there was the child welfare worker who dropped off six children under six – none of whom were toilet trained – with a childless aunt and was horrified when he saw the children in the hospital 9 months later severely beaten or otherwise maltreated. The agency had provided no follow up over those 9 months. And the main reason I was able to make any difference was because I was employed by a large, prestigious institution and people reacted to that name. It shouldn’t take that.

Each of the systems I have named are filled with well-intended, under-resourced, people. Not just in Baltimore. This is true for publicly supported social service institutions in most places in the U.S. Without revenue –yes, I mean taxes – schools can’t provide what is needed, drug treatment centers can’t help addicted parents, child welfare workers cannot do the assessment and monitoring needed to actually support families back to health. Policeman can’t receive the training that would help them to make better decisions under very real pressure.

My younger son was recently doing a unit in school on “early humans.” As part of this work, he did a series of drawings illustrating the “needs of humans.” (Both early and otherwise.) The resulting project is sweet and true showing the respective needs with corresponding pictures: things like clothing, food, and protection. But the last square on the page had the header “Social Acceptance and Meaningful Work.” He had drawn a picture of two people building something together and I’ve found myself thinking about social acceptance and meaningful work as I think about all that is happening in Baltimore right now. For too many young people, poverty, lack of jobs, and non-functioning societal systems communicate to them that they are socially unacceptable – not worthy of investment. A lack of legitimate, meaningful work that pays a living wage produces a situation in which meaning is often found in dark places.

Societal problems can only be remedied by societal resolve. Until all of America decides that circumstances like those I’ve detailed here are not only unacceptable but are each of our problems to solve, there will be no change no matter how much outrage is expressed on TV. We have to take seriously the question Jesus of Nazareth posed to the man who said “who is my neighbor?” In essence, he replied, “Who is not?” The people we see on TV throwing rocks, jumping on cars, standing in riot gear, launching tear gas all of them are our neighbors. And to care for them, we have to invest in them. Not with the occasional donation to a charity, although we should do that too; not through the life cycle of a grant although we need as much knowledge about what works as we can possibly get; but in a sustained way over multiple generations. That is what government is for, to solve problems that are too big for any one group or person. There is no one silver bullet – not education, not better policing, not saying no drugs, etc. Or, maybe I’m wrong. If there is a silver bullet it is the decision of a populous that says we want an America in which we all, white, black, Latino, old, young, urban, rural, work together to build something, a place in which everyone has the real opportunity for social acceptance and meaningful work.

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The Choice to Look

As a faculty member at UNC, I’ve been closely following our unfolding drama around the Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity headed by our colleague, Gene Nichol. For context, I am a member of the Center’s advisory board and have been since its inception. When Gene took the helm of the Center several years into its existence, we all knew something good would flourish because of his commitment and moral leadership. To say I hold him in the highest regard is a gross understatement. I respect him as a colleague and friend. If he did nothing more than write editorial pieces about poverty, he would do enough. Because, as current events demonstrate, when he talks people listen even if they don’t like what they hear.

If there is any good that comes from the current crisis and the many articles, editorials, op-ed pieces, and letters to the editor that have surrounded it, it is that people are having to talk and think about poverty. I’ve been thinking about it too. A month or so ago, a neighbor reached out to the neighborhood and asked us to join her in regularly supporting Table, a local group that combats child hunger in our community. New to the area, she described her surprise to learn how many children are hungry here in Chapel Hill. She asked that every week we, her neighbors, bring food that could go home with children from school in their back packs so that they and their families won’t be hungry over the weekend. She leaves a box on her porch so that we can easily drop things off. The neighborhood has supported this effort. Yet, every time I send my boys down the street with a bag of groceries for her box, I find it hard not to cry. Children should not be in a position in which strangers have to fill their backpacks on Fridays so that they and their younger siblings can eat. It is a terrible evil and it is perpetuated by specific choices that find expression in policies and politics.

Extending unemployment benefits to those who have been laid-off, raising the minimum wage so that someone working full time does not have to have their family living in poverty, expanding Medicaid coverage which goes a long way toward preventing bankruptcy, and deciding income levels at which food stamps will be provided all impact poverty and, not to put too fine a point on it, hunger. Some of you may respond that individual choices are to blame when people, particularly children live in deprivation. Their parents should be doing something differently. In some cases you are right. There are choices we wish people wouldn’t have made to begin with and choices we wish they’d make now. Yet, personal choice intersects with public choice. If a substance abusing parent wants to change, that parent needs accessible and affordable substance abuse treatment at the right level of care for the particular addiction. Likewise, mental health problems that get in the way of employment and good parenting require available treatment. Politicians decide whether funds are allocated in these ways. To divorce interventions to alleviate hunger from policy and, therefore, political choices is impossible.

With his powerful voice, Gene Nichol makes us look this conundrum right in the eye. His language of “hungry babies in Greensboro” prompts visceral reactions that admittedly would make all of us want to turn away. When I became a social worker at age 23, the commitment I made was not to close my eyes to suffering. I cannot always change it and it will surely not be alleviated in my lifetime. But I can bear witness that it is there and it is real. And I can give my talents, such as they are, to those who have no voice and no advocate. I am not alone. Many of us in the professional schools, do work that impacts some part of the poverty puzzle and we do it at Carolina because we believe that what we are doing is highly consonant with the University’s mission and history. Any of us could be singled out and targeted for the work we do. The Board of Governors will make its decision on Friday barring divine intervention (i.e. ice and snow that is in the forecast). But, whatever the decision is, it will say more about the decision makers than it will about anything else. Professor Nichol will continue to speak. And too many North Carolinians will continue to be hungry until we all decide, through our personal and public choices, to stop it.


A Season of Discontent

Like many around me, I have been challenged by the events unfolding in Missouri and now New York. Challenged because, in the face of tragedy and anger and grief, I want to know the “right” things to say and do. On the one hand, I want to be a strong white ally, to my colleagues and friends of color who live in fear that their brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers could fall victim because of split second decisions based in fear and bias. There are other friends and colleagues, both of color and white, who are in or closely connected to law enforcement. To them, statements about biased officers showing disregard for black lives seem to negate the sacrifices their family members make by going into dangerous situations on daily basis. For someone like me, who does not live either of these realities, what is the “right” thing to say and do? Go with the sentiment that seems to prevail at any given moment or keep quiet so as not to anger or upset anyone? There must be other options.

Growing up, I knew nothing about the police. They were people I was taught to respect; they protected people. Aside from moving violations as a teenager, I had no encounters with them whatsoever. Likewise, I had very limited interactions with African-Americans in authority. I don’t remember one African-American teacher, coach, minister, or parent in my little sphere. It was not until I was in my first job, at age 23, in which I had an African-American supervisor that I began dealing with race in any meaningful way. I’ll call her Catherine. She was my supervisor for four years. I remember being surprised when I met her; when I pictured my supervisor the image in my mind was predictably white. The work in that Baltimore emergency room was so daunting that, particularly in the beginning, I sought her counsel on almost every situation making sure I wasn’t missing anything, finding out what else I should ask or say or do. And through this constant contact, we formed a relationship. Looking back, I made mistakes in that relationship – some based in privilege that at the time I could not name and did not realize I was invoking. But she was patient, maybe thought my heart was in the right place, and we had a relationship in which she could teach me about so much to which I was blind.

One day I was in her office and she looked very tired. I asked after her and she replied that she’d been up all night because the police had come to her door. She had two sons one, a teenager. She said the visit had been a mistake; the officers were at the wrong family’s house. Yet, she and her husband were up all night, deeply shaken. I was perplexed. Okay, a mistake. Why were you awake all night? She said, “Mimi, do you have any idea what it is like for the parents of a black teenage boy when the police come to your house saying they are looking for your son?” Clearly, I did not. She explained the terror knowing that your son could be easily mistaken for someone doing something criminal because “all those [black] kids look alike,” or that if your son ran in fear, or made any wrong move, he might be gunned down or hunted with dogs, something I’d seen myself in the ER. I was chastened. There was nothing for me but to listen and learn.

Fast forward several years. I was working here in North Carolina in the PICU and was on call on Thanksgiving Day. As our family gathered around the table in a Thanksgiving prayer, the phone rang and word came that a teenager was hospitalized after a high-speed chase with an officer. The driver, another teen, had been decapitated in the accident. As I left the survivor’s bedside, I walked into the hall to find a tall man pacing nervously. He was huge from my 5’4 vantage point and I noticed he wore a gun on his belt. In a split second I realized he was the officer who had given chase. I said hello and he began to cry deep, remorseful sobs. “I’d never have chased them had I thought they were kids. Oh why did I do that? Oh why?” Again, there was nothing for me in that moment but to listen and learn.

But sympathy, kindness, and compassion cannot be the only response to these stories and hundreds of others like them. There are things to do to make sure that children are not endangered by those charged with protecting them and to make sure that officers do not have to live with the crushing regret that surely must accompany these situations – no matter what they tell CNN. Indeed now in North Carolina and probably in other states, there are much stricter rules about when officers can lawfully give chase in an automobile because of the fatalities that often result. For me, it is time to learn what policies create trusting relationships between police and communities of color; what fosters trust between the public and the justice system that activates when an arrest goes bad. There are answers. After all not every community has these problems. What are those communities doing right? In the end, my response must be to listen deeply to those that need to speak and to learn specifics about what works to prevent these horrible deaths, what works to make sure the justice system lives up to the ideals upon which it is based, and to make sure there are people in position to carry out those policies and procedures that make equality and equal protection realities in all communities.



At the end of a too busy summer during which our family has had hardly a moment to slow down, we are finally on vacation on a houseboat in Philadelphia. Philly has lots to recommend it, water, bike paths, delicious food, great art, so much history. We started our trip in good tourist fashion with the Liberty Bell and the Constitution. We found ourselves reminded of what great and radical ideas this country was built on and one of the National Park Rangers put it well when he said that since the Constitution was signed, we’ve been trying to live up to the ideals it espouses. Philadelphia is also close to New York. A few days ago, we drove up to Liberty Island in New Jersey and took the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island is my favorite New York attraction. The registry room with its literal and figurative echoes; the island’s proximity and distance from Manhattan’s sparkle and promise; the photographs and oral histories that are on display, all powerfully communicate the risk, hope, need, and strength that characterize immigrant experience.

Like many of you, I’ve been reading and watching the unfolding humanitarian crisis on our country’s southern border. My heart aches to think about mothers so desperate that sending their children with strangers, through desserts, hanging on trains, hiding in bushes, and crossing rivers is their only means to give their children a chance at life. What would have to be happening in my neighborhood, town, state, country to send my boys on such a journey? My boys can make each other crazy but my older son would lay down his life for his little brother. If they were forced to make such a journey, he would try his hardest to protect his younger brother but it would be a game of roulette and neither he nor I could influence the outcome. I’ve seen pictures of older siblings with their younger brothers and sisters making this crossing and I can’t help but compare… There but for the grace of God.

My heart breaks too for Americans who show no compassion. News stories about towns driving out child-filled buses and social media diatribes about false choices: taking care of our own versus taking care of “them.” Surely, this is not who these individuals are called to be. As a country, we’ve been here before. Three days ago, here in Philly, I walked past a memorial to Irish immigrants. Here’s how they were described at the time as quoted from the memorial:

Attitudes toward the Irish were typified by an English commentator who described the Irish immigrants as ‘more like tribes of squalid apes than human beings.’ A prominent Philadelphian wrote of the Irish that they had ‘revolting and vicious habits. Being of the lower order of mankind, they were repellent…

Hmmm…echoes, again.

Tomorrow, we head for Boston. Tea parties, midnight rides, stories of people from so many walks of life who risked it all to create something new. The founding fathers, brilliant as they were, didn’t get everything right the first time. The rights of many were sacrificed to get all of the colonies to sign on. But hearing all of the history again reminds me that we are a nation that is more than anything an idea and a dream. And each generation is charged with moving the idea of E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One – forward. Our founding fathers have left it to us to fulfill their great work. To lift the lamp…with liberty and justice for all.