Category: community

When Will We Be Able to Breathe Again?

The Minneapolis police murdered another Black man last night. Mr. George Floyd died, his airway crushed under knee of racism.

I watched a press conference this afternoon about the event. It was gathering of mostly African American leaders with a sprinkling of other people as well. I was struck by an elder standing near the mic. I didn’t catch his name. I think it might have been Frank something. He was Native. I don’t know his tribe. He wore the AIM uniform, an AIM t-shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy hat. His look reminded me of a hundred other friends I’ve known along the way and of a story.

I was reminded that we all come from around the same fire. Someday, if we are to survive we have to come back together be that new people.

This man died because he couldn’t breathe through the hatred and fear that held him down. Not his hatred, not his fear, the hatred and fear that is white and monied. The hatred and fear that chokes the life out of all of us.

It’s been over 500 years now. It’s long enough. It’s time to step out and celebrate the beauty of our differences. We are more than black and white. I know we’re still social distancing, but in whatever way you can, hold each other in your hearts, raise up the beauty, celebrate the strength, honor the struggles. Do whatever it is that you can to make it possible for all who are being crushed to breathe again.

The Emotional Winter

This may just be a short post, but it is a thought that I wanted to share before it gets lost somewhere in the cobwebs of my mind.

I was talking with one of my students earlier today. We were just chatting a bit about school and life and just how things were going for them these days. They were feeling rather down. It seems right now that’s how a lot my students are feeling and how a lot of other people I know are feeling too.

The student told me something that I had heard before from several others. They said that they were just trying to keep things going, keep everything normal, and just push on through. I said to them that I respected that approach, but things aren’t normal right now, why would doing the same thing as we do in a normal situation work?

Then I suggested that it’s like the seasons. Right now we’re in a sort of midwestern winter of reality. We can’t walk out in it in only our summer of self-care and expect not to be frozen and in deep pain. We need to wrap ourselves up in caring and gentleness right now if we are to do our work and face our reality. Our reality is there and needs to be faced. There is work to be done. We just have to prepare ourselves for the weather and sometimes just sit by the fire to keep our beings warm.

Using Time Wisely

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked the US as the most obese country in the world in 2019. The World Health Organization tells us that we are one of the most depressed countries in the world.

The US is among the highest CO2 producers in the world. We continually are dumping poisons everywhere. We are continually putting poisoning our own food and the water we drink. Why?

We have a fascinating opportunity right now. At other times people might pay thousands of dollars to go on retreats to step away from their regular day to day lives and step into something new. We’ve all been given the opportunity for free. Sure, maybe it doesn’t come with an exotic vacation spot or maybe we’re still doing a lot of our work from before and some new jobs too, but we’ve got something here. How can we use it?

I keep thinking of something a friend use to say. He’d be presenting to groups, talking about all sorts of important environmental issues of the day and he’d tell people. “Don’t worry about protecting the earth. The earth, she’ll be fine. It’s us that we need to that we need to be concerned about. We’re the ones who will no longer be able to drink the water. We’re the ones who will no longer be able to breathe the air. We’re the ones who will no longer have food to eat.”

He was right. I suspect that this virus is simply another warning. The warnings are getting bigger and more intense each one after the other. We need to figure this out. What can we do?

You are there in your personal retreat. How can you take this time to care for yourself body, mind, spirit, soul? How does your relationship to this place where we live, this earth change? How do we show her respect? How do we stop poisoning her and poisoning ourselves in the process? When we walk together again who will you be? Who will we all be?

The Place I Am Today

I used to be a community organizer. I like to believe some days that I still am, but other days I wonder especially as I sit here writing in my bed, alone, with my dog laying on my feet, and not knowing how to impact the place where I live.

I began as a student back in the 1990’s with the fire of a teenager and the wisdom of someone who’d seen almost nothing beyond her own home. I got a lot shocks and a great deal of love. I fell often. My teachers helped me find my footing and brush myself off over and over again. We got a lot done and I found a place where I belonged. I’m still in touch with people from those days. Some, I would say, count among my closest friends.

After my years as a student, I took on being an organizer professionally. I learned the ideas of Myles Horton. I came to understand that it isn’t my job to solve the problems that a community faces, but to ask the questions, to hold up the mirror so that the community members might see the answers that they hold and find the solutions for the themselves. It was in asking the questions that I made connections and built friendships.

I’ve moved from here to there over the years, but so many connections remain along with the lessons we’ve learned together along the way and all the struggles that we’ve won and lost. It sometimes seems that I might reach out almost anywhere and find some connection, someone that I’ve known or someone who’s connected to someone I’ve known.

Yet, here where I am right now it seems the connections are tenuous at best. I can see the challenges. But I am in a strange place. It is one of those places where two communities share the same space and are in some sense tied together, yet in deny each other and I don’t know how to change that. Maybe it is what life is in a small town with a university. There is the university and there is the town. There are some who are really part of both and there are some who just live or work in one and are part of the other. Then there are a few like myself who work here and reside here, but don’t really belong to either. I am not sure what to do with that. This is an interesting time and place to look at it. I wonder if it would be different in a larger town or a larger university? My suspicion is that it would, but I can only hope to someday see.

I wonder how many of us there are in these situations. These places where we work and reside and yet are not a part. How does this change? Can it change with time? What does it take to be in the community and not the organizer or what does it take to be an organizer in a community that has two or maybe more personalities?

How are the Neighbors Surviving?

Morris is a small town, only a bit over 5,000 people when students are on campus. Still we are a diverse community with a large portion of our students coming from outside of the United States or from the nations within our nation particularly the Lakota/ Dakota and Anishanaabe peoples and a large Latino community, many of whom work for the Riverview Dairy.

Many of our international students are Asian. Many of them have found themselves navigating the unexpected experience of living in Minnesota while not attending classes on campus. Some are living on campus yet. Others live in town or have found other places to stay. I haven’t heard any reports directly about how they are being treated in our small community during this time of crisis that has become known for its tinge of racism.

I did see something interesting today though that made me wonder. I was shopping at the local Town and Country for some pet supplies. It was a fascinating day to shop. The store had just moved to complete curbside service. I stood outside, phoned in my order, and waited for a staff person inside to do my shopping for me.

As I waited two Latino gentlemen came to do their shopping. I wondered how this might work as I suspected that they may be new immigrants working for the dairy. A staff person came to the door to assist them. It was clear that he wasn’t fully bilingual. Still, his Spanish was better than mine and they managed with just small errors in conversation that were quickly handled.

It made me think though of my own privilege. It’s easy in this place to find everything I need in the language that I understand. I look around though and see next to nothing for my Spanish speaking neighbors. I know that there is a small team working to rectify this and to address at least the most essential needs, but I find it hard to imagine the every day.

Some years ago I had the good fortune to travel to Guatemala to study Spanish in an immersion school for several weeks. I was exhausted by the end of each day from the mental energy of just the simplest acts of living in a language that wasn’t my own. I was safe. There was no threat of illness or changes in access to any sort of resources. Yet, I was exhausted. I wonder how my neighbors survive?

Learning When School Is Closed

So, the schools are closed. For some this is a challenge and it might even mean that learning is lost. For others I suspect it could the best thing that’s happened in 500 years.

I was just thinking this morning about some of my Native friends whose kids and grandkids aren’t in school right now, thinking about where those kids are instead. I realized they’re out at the sugarbush. They’re helping cook food for the family. They’re listening to their grandpa tell stories. Heck, some are even talking with their moms in their Native languages. It made me wonder what will happen to these children?

For over a hundred years Native children were stolen from their families and placed in boarding schools where their language, culture, and traditions were forcibly taken from them. When the boarding school era was winding down the federal government tried another tactic, taking funding from tribes and, in some cases, revoking the recognition of tribes making it impossible to maintain schools equal to that of predominately white areas. Yet, somehow the people survived. A great deal was lost, but much was retained.

If cultures can survive when children are torn away for generations and kept by their captors, what might happen if children can be held close and held with love and told the stories by their families? I can only hope that this illness that has struck the world might help us find the medicine we need.

I suspect the same is true regardless of who we are, Native or non-Native. Our children grow strong when they know their history, when they know who they are. Tell them the stories. Show them the way. The time out of school may be the best time to learn.

How Does This Change Us?

Okay, I took a break again and now it’s time to start writing. I don’t know what to say and can only hope that I find words that can provide help to someone somewhere. This COVID-19 thing is a strange beast. To me in some ways it only feels like a continuance and growth of my past few years here in Morris. While I have found some friends who have made all the difference, I haven’t found my home here. My main community has remained in different places separate from me. So, this is largely just a chance to learn about myself, to figure out some different ways to work, and to work on my own inner challenges in hopes of coming out a stronger and healthier person for whatever my next adventure may be.

The thing that keeps coming to my mind is something that my old friend Walt used to speak about when he was out talking with groups. Walt was a leader in the environmental and social justice movements in the Midwest and beyond. He used to tell people that we didn’t need to worry about saving the earth. The earth she will be okay. The earth she will heal herself. It is us that will die when we can’t breathe the air. It is us who will die when can’t drink the water anymore. It is us who will die when there are no trees, when there is no food to eat. It is us who will die.

Walt told the stories and gave the warnings. This COVID-19 thing seems to be giving the warnings too, giving them loudly and forcefully. I wonder how this changes who we each are individually and collectively? I’ve heard some tales that the shutdowns have already had positive impacts on the environment. I see stories each day of people slowing down and taking the time to take a walk and wave to people they pass, feeling the crushing weight of stress lighten as they stop running from meeting to meeting and task to task.

When this is over will we go back to who we were? Can we go back to who we were? Will we be someone new? Who do we want that someone to be?

The Gift of Going for a Walk

I’ve disappeared from the blog-o-sphere for past few weeks. In fact, I’ve disappeared from quite a bit of life but with good reason. You see, about three weeks ago I was laying in bed watching Netflix when suddenly I had a broken ankle. Seriously, that is the truth no matter how strange it sounds. It’s not clear how my ankle was broken, but as I was diagnosed with epilepsy about six years ago, there’s a good chance I had a seizure. I don’t have seizures often, maybe two or three a year. Usually they just leave me with a headache and a sore tongue, but this one didn’t give me a headache at all, didn’t really hurt my tongue either, but it impacted me in other ways. That is, of course, if it was a seizure. There’s still the possibility that it was my dog jumping up on the bed and landing on me. My memory suggests that may have been what happened. My dog’s size, about 35 lbs, makes it pretty impressive that he could cause that kind of damage.

It’s been an interesting journey. The injury happened Monday night. When the pain wasn’t gone and there was some swelling, I decided to go into urgent care on Tuesday. The staff were pretty amazed that I was walking on a broken ankle. I was a bit surprised to learn it was actually broken.

They gave me a cool moon boot and crutches and sent me home to rest. I slept for about a week. It is amazing how much energy it takes to heal. That first week really sleeping was almost all I did. By week two the swelling was down enough that it was time for surgery. I thought with just a block of anesthetic behind my knee that I might get to experience the operation in a conscious state. I didn’t. I slept. Then I spent the night in the hospital so they might monitor for seizure activity. There was none. I did learn that I do not like percocet. Heavy duty painkillers are horrible things. I took it once and refused it thereafter. I really didn’t have any significant pain. At that point, I actually couldn’t feel my foot at all yet so it made no sense to me how the hospital staff kept trying to push painkillers that set my motion sickness into high gear. I couldn’t move without feeling nauseous.

After a few more days at home with my foot up I returned to the doctor and got the okay to return to work with my walker. That’s been the true gift. Before this accident I walked to work, and most everywhere else, every day. In my little town of about 5,000 people, I would typically put on one to five miles a day just doing what I needed to do. Right now, walking a block with my walker is significant exercise. My ankle is healing fast and I’m hoping to get back to a more normal routine in the next month or two, but this is where I am right now.

I find myself thinking a lot of some old friends who taught me about accessibility from their wheelchairs. I am especially thinking of Mark. He was a volunteer when I worked for the Grassroots Leadership College. He had severe physical limitations. I remember him apologizing once when he was late for his shift. He told us how when it was raining the bus drivers would often pass him by. They didn’t want to get wet helping him board the bus. That was just one little example of how the world treated his disability. There were too many others. Eventually, he had enough. He rolled himself down to the lake, propelled his body out of his chair, and landed face down in the water and ended his time being discriminated against.

My experience is nothing like his, but it has been a gift to look at accessibility issues and at how I see myself in this world of varying abilities.

First, I kind of have to laugh at myself. I found myself thinking the other day, as I was trying to open a heavy door without losing my balance, “this would really suck if I really had a disability!” Okay, now I am traveling around on eight screws and a plate, using a moon boot and a walker, because of a broken ankle that was quite likely caused by a seizure. Some might say I have a disability. I don’t really identify with that. It doesn’t make much sense to me. So, there is that, the whole question of what is it to have a disability in the first place? Who gets to decide who has a disability? Why do they have that power?

Then, I have to say “god bless the elders who do this in snow or on hills!” I live in Minnesota so I am thankful that my injury didn’t happen just a few weeks later. Did you know that if you hit a crack in the sidewalk your walker might veer off the wrong direction? Or did you realize that walkers really don’t have very good brakes and can start speeding along on even the slightest incline? I have the gift of being an in shape and strong middle aged woman. I can handle these challenges pretty easily. But, it’s tough for me to imagine what it’s like to use a walker if you don’t have the upper body strength or the sense of balance.

I’ve fallen a couple of times since I broke my ankle. I’ve been able to lean into my fall and land gently. Still, I think to myself what more damage could have done to the already broken spot? Or, thinking again of our elders, I wonder about my hips. It seems that for too many the broken hip is the kiss of death. I have two small steps going into my house. Normally, I barely notice them. Now I realize that they could kill someone.

I’m learning the little things about accessibility from a different perspective and it’s good for me, good for us, to know. One of my first lessons was on my first day back to work. I had to go to the HR office to drop off some files about the incident. HR is on the second floor of Behmler Hall. I’ve worked on campus two years, but don’t go to Behmler all that much. I knew there was an elevator, but I wasn’t sure where.

The bus dropped me off not far from the front entries to the building. It was then I really noticed that both of the main entries have stairs. I had to go down the hill alongside the building to come in a back door to find the elevator. Going down the hill I was thanking my lucky stars that there wasn’t any ice yet and wondering how people make that trek in winter. I also thought about how I’ve been on campus for two years and I had to search to find my way. I wondered about people coming to campus for the first time. How can you feel welcomed if you can’t come in the door?

Thinking of doors, I never really realized before how heavy doors can be. I also never really noticed how often there are buttons on exterior doors to open them, but once you’re in a building interior doors often don’t have that access tool. The building that I work in has, what I had always thought were accessible restrooms. They’re big with room to turn a wheelchair, the sink, soap, and hand dryers at good height. I think there’s even a bar to help getting on and off the toilet. But, those doors are heavy as heck when you’re balancing on one leg and using a wheeled device for mobility.

My experience thus far has been a simple one and there hasn’t been much that I can’t find a way around. I have been given the gift of hearing stories though. I know that there are people on campus who’ve not taken on roles that would both benefit them professionally and benefit the campus community because of the challenges of access in some of our campus buildings.

Sometimes people fight for access and sometimes they decide to just take a different route in life because we can’t all be fighters all the time. Sometimes we just need to live.

I encourage my friends to notice the steps, think about the weight of the door, look at where the furniture is placed, acknowledge the shelves and where supplies are kept. Note these things. Decide for yourself what is acceptable and change what is not.

How Do We Respond To All The Violence?

Some of my students and I were meeting today for our regular learning circle. It turned out not to be the circle I’d expected. I’d gone in with a list of questions and updates to make sure that everyone’s community projects were on task and ready to be done in just a few weeks.

Instead, we got into other conversations. One of the topics of conversation was the recent mass shootings. We discussed how violence has become the norm, the students spoke to how their response to the growing number of shootings in our country is to do their best to ignore it. They expressed how this is the only way that they feel they have to handle the immense fear, grief, and anger. They spoke of becoming hardened to feeling.

I suggested to them that this hardening seems to me much like that of depression or burnout and that maybe our society is burned out and that’s not okay. They agreed that this may be the case. Not surprisingly, they had no clear answers on what to do. But, I think the conversation was good and healthy and maybe part of what needs to be done. They talked with each other. We came together as community and acknowledged our fear face to face. That coming together and just talking is part of the healing I am sure of that. Community is essential. That’s not social media discussion or meetings to act or anything else other than just coming together as people and just letting the conversation flow.

I had another interesting conversation later in the day. A friend offered to me that part of the problem we may be facing today is inter-generational trauma. My friend spoke specifically to the trauma carried by white people from generation to generation from our role that we’ve played in so much destruction and enslavement of many kinds. Something there made sense to me, not just for the dominant group, but for all of us.

What is it that we do with our history? I’d always heard of the concept of multi-generational trauma associated with Native cultures. There is much to suggest that it is very much a reality. What if it is true of all of us? What if we carry the experiences and energies of past generations? What if we are deepening and speeding up the process with the intensity of the growth of violence in our lives?

Many Native peoples have found their way in life through a revitalization of cultural history, by learning their languages, practicing their spirituality, returning to traditional foods, and simply listening to their stories.

While I believe firmly in pressuring the government to take appropriate actions to address the growing violence and I think it’s important to partake in non-violent protest to make our voices heard, I think there is something more, something for the long term.

I think there is a knowledge in the work being done in Native communities to address inter-generational trauma that is part of addressing the growing issue of violence in our communities. We need to ask ourselves each day, “How can I treat myself and all my relations with respect and caring?”

This begins, I believe, with taking pause, breathing deep, and treating ourselves gently, feeding ourselves in healthy ways physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This gives us the energy to reach out.

We reach out to feed our relations whether those be fellow people or the earth and its other inhabitants. We take time to breathe together and get to know each other, to heal each other’s wounds.

That’s where we begin and that’s where we ultimately find the long term answers, in caring for ourselves and each other, in building our spiritual and emotional connections, in becoming a community.

It seems so simplistic and yet so challenging and so lost over so many generations. Yet, it is what we need. So, today, care for yourself, treat yourself with respect, and reach out with the same caring and respect for all those around.