Monday, September 10, 2018

Guest Author: Briana Keo-Williams

When I was in high school, my Art teacher posed a question: “Why do biracial people always say they are Black when they are half Black and half white? Why not say they are white?” At the time, she asked this question to a predominantly white class. Why? Maybe she was trying to get them to question their world view. No matter her motive, her reaction to my response of, “It is because we are treated as Black. We do not get any other privileges” highlighted her own ignorance. I was the only Black kid in the class and the question pertained to me specifically as a mixed race person. Yet, she ignored me and just walked away like I hadn’t said anything.
            The world has a tendency to not look beyond the surface and accepting perceptions as facts. Personally, I never really “feel Black” until someone or something reminds me that I am. When I was younger, my identity was less about being a Black American and more about being my parents’ daughter. My father is Jamaican and a quarter English, while my mother is Cambodian and Chinese. Thus, I am not new to the question “So, what are you mixed with?” or “Wait, you’re Asian?”. It’s clear to everyone that I’m Black, and it’s clear to me that I am treated as such.
Like so many other Black kids growing up in the United States, I resented being Black for a very long time. I did not have the capacity to question or reflect deeply about what it meant to be Black, all I saw were the drawbacks. Being Black meant my skin and hair were never going to be pretty enough for a magazine. It meant I stuck out in school. It meant that I didn’t look enough like my beautiful mother.  It meant the same people I wanted to like me, used slurs and names that were hurtful. So maybe there was just something wrong with being Black? My skin felt like a flaw, not a part of my identity, so I tried to distance myself and imagine I was anything else.
I encountered the ignorance and discrimination that Black people inherently face. Growing up, I lived in a white suburb where my house was vandalized more times than I can count on one hand. Skinheads would gut animals and throw them all over our porch, they would spray paint “N*gger go home” and swastikas on our house and car.  All the while, tapping at windows and rattling doors. My sister and I were young enough that we slept through these “visits.” I do not remember seeing the men or hateful words. I only remember the police visits in the kitchen while I kept my little sister occupied with barbies in the next room. This was my introduction to discrimination. By the time I was old enough to put the pieces together and understand it, I had become a bit numb to it.
In middle school, plenty of kids assumed I was dumb because I’m Black. I remember my teacher applauding me for a nearly perfect test score and how confused my tablemate looked. Realization washed over his face as he said: “Oh that’s right, your mom’s Asian, that’s why you did so well.” It seemed clear to him that me being half-Asian gave me an academic edge and that my Black half would lack.  Even more disappointing was the fact that I accepted it. Never mind that my father was an engineer with a 150 IQ and my mom never graduated from college, my estimated worth was determined by the fact that my mother was Asian, and I believed that.
These are just some examples, albeit blatant ones, of the way Black Americans are treated at a young age and how that impacts their self-image. I know the term “White Privilege” can get controversial, but I think this is an apt example of it. There is the moment in every Black person’s life where they realize they are growing up differently from their white counterparts. As a kid, I listened to my father warn me about people who would wish me harm and think of me as lesser. He grew up a Black immigrant in the 1960s and having white men with violent intentions on his front lawn was nothing new to him. He had already given my older brother his stories and advice, and it was my turn.  It’s a conversation we wouldn’t have had to have if we were white. He told me that it was more than just people being mean, it was about my safety. My dad has always believed that his job was to prepare his children to live in a world without him. In his case, teaching his children how to handle and respond to discrimination was just part of that.  It hurt him because it was something he could not protect us from. His usually goofy disposition was replaced with a new intensity, his teasing jokes replaced by stern pleading words; in minutes you could see him become a different man. My white peers did not have to dissect and digest that. They did not have to look at their skin in the mirror and remember all the things that have been said to them because of it. They did not have to fumble and find it hard to love.
This is something I don’t think my mother understood or that my father even knew I felt. I struggled with wanting to be liked. I struggled with wanting to be accepted. I struggled with wanting to be conventionally beautiful. I was deeply insecure and it stemmed from how I knew the world saw me and its familiar capacity for cruelty, a collection of feelings and experiences I know so many other people of color share.
I know now I wasn’t alone even during the worst moments. It was the way my friend of ten years urged me to tell our teacher that two boys had been calling me slurs and vandalizing my things. It was the way my 7th grade humanities teacher held my hands and cried when she told me it was okay to be upset. It was moments like these that helped me learn my worth. I was a shy kid who internalized every insult hurled my way, and it’s heartbreaking to think that other young people feel the same way. It was allies like them that offered real time support and validation. It’s musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce and Solange Knowles that continue to remind us it’s okay to be unapologetically Black. It’s people like Serena Williams, Ryan Coogler and Barack Obama that exude and celebrate Black Excellence. They show us there is not just one way to be Black and that the ignorant do not deserve our admiration. To quote the late icon, Nina Simone, “We must begin to tell our young, there's a world waiting for you. This is a quest that's just begun. When you feel really low… there's a great truth you should know. When you're young, gifted and Black, your soul's intact.” Every Black kid deserves to embrace and cherish every part of their identity, and it’s important we teach them that.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Profile in Service: Livingstone Delali Agbo

 My name is Livingstone Delali Agbo, a graduate of the University for Development Studies, Ghana, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Integrated Community Development. I have a total of five years working experience in the non-profit sector and rural communities.

Throughout my professional life, I always seek to work with people. My passion for youth activism, volunteering, teaching and working with pupils, was first sparked while volunteering with the UK-Government-Funded International Citizenship Service program in the Adaklu district of the Volta Region, Ghana. I worked with a team of volunteers from the UK and Ghana to develop an action-research program for the Adaklu Waya Livelihood Project. I organized and facilitated training sessions with farmer's groups and engaged with the youth and District Assembly to develop market knowledge through research to enhance the livelihood activities of the community members.

I was later appointed as a Team Leader on the Latitude Ghana Volunteers project, where I led a Team of eight volunteers on the Adaklu Waya Livelihood Project. I worked with farmers in rural communities to deliver trainings in good agricultural practices, business planning, marketing, and branding to improve their conditions. I also led a skill training event in Tie and Dye making, which served as an alternative source of livelihood for the community folks. Together with my team, we successfully won a grant of GHS 2,500.00 as start-up capital for five farmers groups we've established. I also took the initiative to raise awareness on the importance of educating the girl child through a door to door campaign to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy among the girls in the community.
I recently completed a two-year Fellowship Program with Teach for Ghana (TFG), a movement of solution-driven leaders expanding educational opportunities to all children in Ghana. I taught English Language in the Metsrikasa District Assembly Basic School in the Volta Region of Ghana, and served as a mentor for Teacher Trainees. Being on the Teach for Ghana Fellowship Program has influenced my leadership capacity and developed my commitment to bridging the educational inequity gap in my country, Ghana. I have built a strong bond with pupils, parents and the community I worked with. As a teacher and leader of my pupils, I sought to deliver lessons that enhanced pupils’ academic excellence and mind-sets and access to opportunities. I exposed my pupils to the world through a letter exchange programme led by Yo Ghana, a US based NGO in Ghana; they write and receive letters from their penpals U.S. schools. I have also established a reading culture in the school through a reading club I have established, where I engaged pupils three times a week after normal school hours to read. I also led a school painting project, where I painted the JHS block with my pupils and posted motivational messages from some African and European leaders on 48 trees on the school compound. I also led the establishment of a library and computer lab in the school.

One major challenge I faced while working on the Metsrikasa School Library and Computer Lab Project was fundraising issues, and hence could not meet the timeline for executing the project. It was very difficult at the beginning trying to fundraise from friends and family members in Ghana as they did not understand the reasons why they should support such an initiative. However, the enthusiasm and support of the community folks and the Parents Teachers Association (P.T.A) refueled my drive to pursue the project. The community members through the P.T.A levies were able to construct bookshelves, provide spaces for computers, and use their own labor to raise this structure. My colleague Obed Nhyira Sam and I won a grant from Yo Ghana to purchase a three-in-one printer, which has helped in duplicating learning materials for pupils and also printing out the letters they receive from their U.S. penpals. We won a second grant to purchase six computers for the school. Through a partnership with ‘Scholars in Our Society and Africa’ (SOSA), a nonprofit in the United States, we have received over 500 books for the library. We raised an additional 300 books from other sources.

I derive my motivation from seeing people's lives change by the little support I give.  Giving back to my community and country has helped me to discover my strengths, weaknesses and skills as a Leader. Volunteering and teaching has helped me to identify my career path and long term vision.

Although I seek to work with people, it has been very challenging working with people with different characters and temperaments. I learned to respect the views of others and not always base my judgements on single stories or hearsay. I believe the best way to know people and to work with them is to develop a personal relationship with them. This strategy helped me in the classroom as I tried to know my pupils beyond the class. As I learned not to please man, I became more expressive than impressive. This also helped me to grow as a Leader and become more confident with my values.

I have served in various leadership positions which have earned me a wide spectrum of leadership skills and achievements on my career path.  I was appointed as the Assistant Departmental Head and Secretary for the Metsrikasa D/A Basic School. I was voted as the District Lead for Teach For Ghana fellows in the Akatsi North District and Project Director for Everyday People-GH, an alumni volunteering organisation promoting active citizenship among the youth in Ghana.

I am also a social entrepreneur and Founder of DEEP Creative Arts (DCA). DCA is a graphic design and fine art firm, engaged in business branding, paintings, t-shirt/screen printing, and skills development of pupils in the basic and Senior High Schools of Ghana.

My hope is to one day become an astute development practitioner, who invests his skills and talents in the lives of others. I seek to do this through youth empowerment, educational leadership, volunteerism and community development.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Why Stories Draw Us

A daily meditation from Frederick Buechner touched me deeply this morning. The widely read novelist and ponderer asks why "stories have such power." Think of toddlers sitting in a half circle and gazing in silent wonder at a picture book or how engrossed we get in a novel or movie.

Buchner believes  that storytellers are assuring us "that life has meaning, . . . . that life adds up somehow," even that stories "may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is."

It seems to me that the meaning of stories have changed over time. For most of the history of humanity, groups had a long list of highly detailed stories that explained why one existed and what the purpose of life is. Stories reminded everyone of shared values.

Today more and more of us life in highly diverse and fragmented societies. Unlike the great majority of our ancestors, we have a great deal of choice over what we choose to believe, why we are here, how we should act and conduct ourselves. That sort of boundless freedom can be unsettling, even terrifying. We don't seem to be wired to figure out what life is for all on our own.

Stories are imaginative, of course, both in the telling and the hearing. But they also offer substance, evidence from outside our lives. Attending to the stories of others breaks through our little bubbles and offers the unbounded sky. The more we hear and the better we listen, the better sense we get of what life might be about, even why we are here.

Monday, August 13, 2018

No Love Without Sacrifice: Karen Armstrong and Warren Hardy

I was nearing the end of Karen Armstrong's fine short history of myth when I ran across an assertion that I knew I had heard before.                                                                                Armstrong points out that our ancestors turned to myth, to stories, for courage in the face of danger and suffering. A good myth was neither a fiction nor a diversion; rather, it reminded them that a good life required sacrifice. An effective myth, she summarizes, "demands action."

Myth, stories that told people how to be in the world, allowed our ancestors to "live with the unacceptable," to act heroically in the face of death and suffering.  We now, she says, commonly turn to drugs, music, and celebrities for a whiff of the transcendent, experiences that at best provide vicarious and pale versions of the sort of stories that inspired our ancestors to risk their lives for the welfare of the group.

This all could not help but remind me of my Narrative 4 friend, Warren "there is no love without sacrifice" Hardy. Warren is at the heart of Helping Young People Evolve in Hartford, Connecticut, an organization devoted to offering hope to at-risk youth.

Life is so much better when we find the Warren Hardys of this world, listen to their stories, and follow their examples.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Narrative 4 Summit: Meeting Ishmael Beah and Other Inspiring People

Last month I had the great honor of attending the annual Narrative 4 Summit, which this year was in New Orleans. I got to meet Ishmael Beah, the organization's Vice President. I had read his memoir of being a child soldier when my son was required to read it for high school. Now that I regularly work with refugee youth who are telling their own stories of loss and resilience, it was a blessing to receive some counsel from someone so much more experienced in that work. In fact the gathering, like the organization, offered a feast of widely read writers who excel at describing hard-won hopes.

But what I most enjoyed about the summit was being surrounded, every day, by scores of people who were deeply committed to learning from and caring for others. From Tel Aviv, Israel to Tampico, Mexico, to small towns in the Southern U.S. and South Africa to big cities in the Northern U.S. and Northern Italy and beyond, the rooms and the buses were full of people who were having a blast pouring out their lives in collaboration with others to create bonds of understanding and love.

We are constantly told in the modern U.S. that our principal goal in life should be to pursue and expand our privileges, to get and defend our piece of the American Dream, to "have a good time, all the time"--to "live for the week-end" and "grab the gusto."

But there are many people across the world whose lives suggest that a deeper meaning and even happiness resides in struggling to understand and care for each other. Much of the magic of Narrative 4, I believe, comes from inviting people to experience that way of looking at and living in the world. Being with ninety or so people from across the world devoted to that work revealed and confirmed that an empathetic life is a rich life. Thank you.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Video of Two Brave Story Exchangers

It's a story in itself of how Milen and Zeinab, the two Reynolds High School students in this MetroEast Television interview, became heavily involved with Narrative 4 story exchanges.

My dear friend Michelle and University Studies brought Narrative 4 to Portland State late last year, and I loved the story exchange so much that I started doing them in my freshman inquiry class on immigration. The students loved it, too, and in January several of them started working with another dear friend, Debra, and her Reynolds High School students. Some of the Reynolds students started an official story-share club at the school around issues of equity. In June Narrative 4 invited two students (including Milen), teacher Deb, and I to their annual Summit in New Orleans, where we met nearly one hundred youth and adults from across the globe who are also hooked on story exchanges. Some of the PSU and Reynolds students, including Zeinab, are trained facilitators.

In sum, the power of exchanging meaningful stories has caused a lot to happen in a short amount of time. Bridging the many divides at Reynolds, Portland State, and the broader Portland Metro Area seems impossible. But carrying each others' stories has brought to us all a sense of joyful purpose, even hope. We have become friends who know and count on each other.

Each of the young women wears a shirt with the word "blessing" on it. It's been a deep blessing for me to work with these students and others as we strive to care for each other and do the hard, good work of spreading empathy.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Our Kids, by Robert Putnam

The title of this 2015 book didn't really hit me until the last sentence.

Putnam, a widely read Harvard University professor, does a wonderful job of laying out how children from lower-income families have a more difficult path to socio-economic mobility than I did. Two generations ago children from different social classes were much more likely to live next to, go to school with, and marry each other than they are now. The extra-curricular activities that used to be free are now likely to cost money. Income is now a much stronger predictor of who goes to college than test scores are, and children from impoverished families are much less likely to go to church or otherwise have caring adults in their lives than they were in 1970. Many of them have no idea of how to get to college or pursue a career.

Putnam points out that this is a problem that cuts across racial or ethnic divisions. Moving out of poverty is unlikely for white, Latino, and black children. In fact immigrant children often have stronger social structures than native-born citizens do.

There are some policy recommendations in the last chapter that seem sound but, in this polarized political moment, remote. But Putnam reminds us that most of us can do at least a little bit to help at least one of the millions of children who are struggling by being a mentor or, I would add, being a dependable classroom volunteer or otherwise present in the life of a child outside your social circle.

There is so much judgement around children who are struggling. We too readily complain about other people and their children. Yet many struggling parents are working very hard and deserve as well as need our help. In any event, the children certainly do, and shouldn't that be enough? As Putnam points out in that last sentence: "They are our kids."

I have a friend who is mentoring more than one hundred low-income youth, and he has an extremely demanding job plus several children of his own. Imagine what sort of world we would live in if each of us committed to be there for just one child we don't now know, if "those kids" we complain about became "our kids" that we care for.