Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thoughts while watching media coverage of candidates aspiring to lead us ... .

... and noticing a simple thing that has failed to catch my attention until now, but could be of vital importance. 

Listening to the stump speeches of some of the most bellicose -- now being honed into whatever goes as politically expedient and poll-worthy.

Found myself wondering just how inclusive is their use of the word,"we."  Tiny word, but one with hidden powers beneath its simplicity.

Do you suppose, when that little word is a part of a sentence about our need to protect the people of our country from the scourge of brutal terrorism -- that the man who operates the Taco Truck that delivers lunch to factories and office complexes; the black handyman who cleans the gutters and stops the leaks and his wife who runs the beauty shop; the cleaning woman who can only come to work on Tuesdays because her other jobs take up all the other days; the newly-arrived middle-eastern family who haven't yet mastered enough of our language to stray more than a few blocks from home; their young daughter whose head scarf may still set her apart from her peers and is beginning to weigh heavily;  and those young people living in fear of deportation because -- though they were born and brought up in this country, cannot gain citizenship because their parents are undocumented?  Are all included in the WE?

If those who aspire to lead us were forced to study and explain their "we," and if they, themselves, understood the depth of meaning in its use -- do you suppose they could continue to defend current regression into a kind of isolationism that is indefensible within the context of our founding documents?  That they could -- in good conscience -- be shouting over the voices of the reasonable about closing the borders against those seeking asylum from the unspeakable brutality taking over their homelands?

American lives of every racial group, economic status, culture, and religious affiliation, have been sacrificed to gain and defend our freedoms in decades of endless wars.  All that cannot be waived so that only those who make up the top 1%, or whose skin tones fall in the white/ivory/peach part of the spectrum, would fall under Homeland Security protection.  "WE, the people" come in all flavors, but there's something that sounds hollow about that word as it slips out onto the air waves from the lips of some who would hope to lead us into an increasingly dangerous and separatist future.

... and why does the phrase American exceptionalism make...  my... skin... crawl?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Whiplash!  Out of total despair -- into sublime joy!

Yesterday, upon arrival at the Visitor Center for my first program of the day, the familiar big yellow school bus arrived from Vacaville, California.  Pouring out of it were 55 high school students with perhaps 5 instructors.  It had been explained that these kids were advanced placement students and had studied this era so were prepped for my talk.  Still  I was more than a bit apprehensive.  The inescapable feeling of late, that someone far younger than I should be interacting with teens -- that the distance between their ages and mine was simply too great for me to hold their interest.  I felt so inadequate.  These could be my grand- and great-grandchildren! Why did anyone believe that this was appropriate?  One of the younger ranger surely should be interpreting this history for them.

But this had been scheduled for me, and there was nothing to do but comply.  Later in the day, at my 2 o'clock presentation, I would have the grownups, and my confidence would return as before.

To add to the confusion, two members of the team who will be filming my talk had arrived and were standing at the back of the theater trying to scope out the existing lighting and to learn how to supplement ...

The kids got seated and I introduced the 15-minute orientation film without incident.  When the lights dimmed and I did the usual -- moved my wooden stool to a place against the wall just beyond the entrance and the black velvet curtain intended to dampen the sounds from the hallway.  It was then that the curtain was drawn back slightly and Wes, one of the docents, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered that there was an urgent telephone call from Tom, our superintendent, - and I must immediately go into Elizabeth's office to answer.

Mind you, I'm still wearing a lapel mike attached to my necktie and it was live!

I made my way across the short hallway; picked up the phone, and at the other end of the line was Director Jon Jarvis of the National Park Service calling from Washington to announce an invitation for me to attend the tree lighting ceremony at the White House with the First Family on December 3rd!  Not only that, but that I was being asked to introduce the president of the United States of America!  I was stunned.  I'm not sure where my feet were, but somehow they fell into place beneath me and took me back into the theater where the film was still in progress.  (Fortunately, Michael, who was serving as my techie had rushed into the office to cut off the mike just before the call came, but not before my voice had boomed out into the audience while en route!)  
Photo by Carl Bidleman
Climbed back onto my stool as "Home Front Heroes" drew to a close.  Looked out at those lovely young faces and said, "You won't believe what just happened.  There was a call from Washington, D.C., and ...", in a few sentences blurted out the incredible story.  "You're the first to know, and you'll just have to keep our secret until it hits the news cycle."   I didn't know at the time whether the news should be shared.  I simply could not have continued my talk with those words crowding out everything else.  They had to be voiced.  Surprisingly, after taking a few quieting breaths, I was able to pick up the next few sentences of my presentation, and allow the excitement to be quelled until the
work was done.  Time enough later to go out to the water's edge to stand quietly to let it all in.

As the kids took leave (after the usual round of picture-taking) I realized that those years between us made us miles apart, but that our humanity was the equalizer.  I don't think that I'll ever experience such fears again, at least not until the next time.  As a parting gift, each took the time to jot down on small slips of paper, their impressions and gratefulness for the experience.  This was surely planned in advance of their coming.  The notes were thoughtful and sincere -- they left me with more than 50 slips that I will treasure against the dark days.

It was then that the filmmakers (who'd followed me out to the water's edge) told me that they were planning to make the trip to Washington with me -- if the permissions were granted by Homeland Security, and for the first time -- I realized that I was probably the only person who didn't know that this was programmed to happen on this day ... .They'd filmed those moments of my explanation to the students in those words that I shall never be able recall ... but maybe it matters not.

... and maybe it was all for the best.  I could not possibly have endured the painful pleasure of anticipation.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Somewhere in the early days of this journal I'm certain that I wrote of "Betty's 500 ft. area of responsibility" ... .

In the light of the unbelievable savagery experienced in Paris this weekend, I could feel myself shrinking back into the desperate mindset of those days:

On the streets outside our little store in South Berkeley the drug trade had claimed territory and our building was right in the middle of it.  We were at ground zero.  Within a few weeks -- at different times -- I witnessed 4 young black men brutally shot down on the streets; it was a turf war. A police car in fast pursuit in the middle of the night crashed through our plate glass windows.  On a quiet Saturday afternoon with customers browsing the record bins, a bullet screamed through our window from a police action across the street -- and was embedded in the wall behind the counter.  A meeting held by the tenant on our second floor -- a meeting which included the police chief caused the suspicious drug dealers to affix barrel bombs to our 8' plate glass windows and blasted them out in the middle of the night leaving us vulnerable to looters.

Another dark day, due to the indescribable fetid odor of decaying flesh reeking from our dumpster, the garbage collectors found the remains of a fetus that had been festering for a number of days -- from some unknown troubled young soul, surely.

Over time I developed the ability to imagine that there were buttons just below my rib cage, and that I could press one of them as I got out of my car each morning -- to enable the ability to dumb down to a level of insensitivity that would allow me to exist over another work day on the street -- before climbing back into the driver's seat on an exhale upon closing.  Just another day of survival in my state of existence as 3/5ths of a human being (as an African American).  And I suppose, another 5th might be knocked off for my status as woman

At that time I had more money invested in irons bars on my doors and windows than in merchandise for resale.  It was then that -- when I attempted to buy insurance coverage the agent told me that if I could lift our building up and set it down 3 blocks in any directions, they would be happy to write a policy, but where it stood there was simply too much risk.  I could not count on help, either from the insurance company or the police department who were reluctant to clean up the area,  "... because when something happens in other parts of town, we know the most likely place to pick up the culprit!"  They were using our neighborhood as a catchment area for their own purposes. 

Though I've never shirked my political activist role, it was during those years that I stopped trying to change the world and made a commitment to limit my personal area of responsibility to changing just 500 feet!  It worked.  The world would have to take care of itself but everything that lay within my self-imposed boundaries had better shape up or ship out!  It only was then that life became manageable, and the awful panic subsided.  That familiar feeling of a chronic state of panic has returned since Paris ... .

Over past years I've allowed my self-determined sphere of influence to expand unrealistically; to gradually take in city, state, and at times national issues; rarely international.  Currently, my activism includes work with the National Park System, and in that work I've had some real successes.  That is, until Friday's horrific headlines from Paris.

Woke Saturday morning after a sleepless night of agonizing over the brutality -- the unbelievable savagery of ISIS in the unprovoked attack on innocent people in a bloody massacre that defies the imagination! My breathing is not as measured as before, and I have to keep reminding myself to stop the occasional dry sobs so that my palms will be less sweaty and my heartbeat can ease into a more reasonable rate.  I'm experiencing even greater fears as in those dark and frightening days when forced to reduce my world to a more manageable size.

I'm willing to be responsible for my 500 feet, again, if the rest of you will take up those on the East, West, North, and South of mine.  You'll need to recruit for the footage beyond those you designate as your own, though, if we're going to pull this off.  Maybe we can still make it work.  I have to remind myself that -- before turning the store over to my son, David, some years ago -- I had brash young drug dealers standing on street corners with clipboards in white shirts and ties - registering voters!

It's conceivable that ISIS will pose more complex problems, but I'm game if you are.

Meanwhile, I'm simply terrified.

It's this awful feeling of profound helplessness ... and the deep down gnawing suspicion that the known world has spiraled out of anyone's control.

... but this morning as I listened to our young capable President Barack Obama, I was able to lean on just a few moments of confidence in his leadership, before it evaporated into the somber sound bytes coming from NPR.  I can imagine no one in whom I have greater trust in these dark days of fear and uncertainty.

He obviously can't limit his world to 500 feet.  He has the awesome responsibility of the nation and all of the people of the world, who like me, are hungrily looking to him for guidance and assurance that life will go on even as it veers so tragically off course.  Dr. Carson?  Really?  Who else would you suggest?

Would that those who are manning those roadblocks that prevent him from fully governing would stand aside and allow his wisdom to prevail -- is there really anyone else in sight with the power and the purpose to lead us toward a more compassionate future?

Think about that, then take the 500 ft. that abuts mine (east, west, north, or south) and see that everyone who is an eligible voter is registered.

That's how we begin to re-create Democracy in our time.

Friday, November 13, 2015

... then, of course, filming did not begin as scheduled, and both the stilling of the rumor, and that momentary burst of adrenaline in anticipation had to be dismissed ...

... and what passes as normalcy has returned.

New information (received in an email this morning) is that on the upcoming Tuesday the team will arrive at the Visitor Center at 9:45 to scope out the existing lighting in our little theater in order to figure out what supplements will be needed for the cameras.  It is only after that's been done that the work schedule will be arrived at, and (of course) activities of the holiday season are fast approaching.

Since I'm planning to take a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, later to be followed by two weeks for Christmas and the final week of the year -- it's getting pret-ty "iffy."

Find myself wondering whether this can happen before the first week in the new year?  Sounds very unlikely, but since this is a first experience -- I'm not sure what the preparation period demands, and was under the impression that it's in the editing stages that time is a factor.

So much more time for apprehension to build, and confidence to erode ... but there is also time for experiences with new audiences to absorb, and for that magical warmth to build ... .

I suppose it all balances out in the end.

Maybe it just means that the expected adrenaline rush is a stage that will dissipate over the prep period, and that it will all be uneventful.  But then maybe that nervousness provides the edge that sharpens the experience for us all.

So much to learn.

So little time remaining ... .

... and yesterday, November 12th, is the birthday of my late younger sister, Lottie, and this year I'm missing her dearly which provides it own edge.  She died only 3 years ago.  That sense of urgency returns with a vengeance when I remember just how fragile is life in this final decade.  I cannot imagine Lottie not being alive. She was so vibrant!  How impossible it is to try to visualize the state of non-existence... .

Monday, November 02, 2015

I'm told that this is the week when filming of my theater talks will begin ... .

... and I'm at home today growing edgy and uncertain that I can fulfill expectations ... .

... trying to recapture images of recent week's audiences and finding comfort in the fact that among the visitors were teachers and historians; 4 members of Rep. Nancy Pelosi's staff; 4 white-haired grandchildren of President Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt; someone who introduced herself as "Eve," who asked if I would be interested in meeting Van Jones (CNN), or in coming to Silicon Valley to speak to those audiences who are changing the world even as we speak? Or, how about a TED talk? All this must mean something of worth is happening here, right?

At the time that Eve came up the adrenaline rush was just subsiding, along with whatever it is that makes it possible for the inner Betty to emerge with the authenticity that validates my work, so outer Betty was really only half present.  I would need these memories, along with that of 15 exuberant students from San Francisco State University who'd been promised extra credit for sitting in on my talk; with the 15 sober young Coast Guardsmen and women who sat at rapt attention last week (they were still and stone-like throughout, and I found myself wishing that I could be present when they were back at their base discussing the experience ... .).   Their firm handshakes as they took leave certainly expressed how deeply they'd been moved.  My presentations have grown from 3/times weekly to -- last week -- 6!  That is not sustainable, though.  The emotional demands of 6 one-hour programs in one week is simply too exhausting, and burnout is predictable.

Fortunately, I will be taking two weeks off during the holiday season.    

It is in the re-examining of those experiences -- and others like them gathered over years -- that will provide the confidence that may or may not carry me through the next two weeks of filming.

I'm often aware in infrequent flashes that a number of visitors are taping my talks with their cellphones, but -- once the work begins -- that awareness moves to an unoccupied corner of my brain -- and I'm only aware of the eyes before me; nothing beyond.  I work with the theater lights turned up to their brightest in order to make that connection possible.  Maybe my response to the presence of cameras and lights will  be no more than a momentary distraction, and that connection with those eyes will be impossible to disrupt; or so we will hope.     

It's in those first few minutes after my last sentence is uttered; just after that long silence as folks are collecting themselves; just before the Q&A is about to start.  That's when I feel most vulnerable, but invariably it is also when I feel most rewarded by the intensity of those moments.  It's in those seconds when I'm placing the stool back behind the lectern and turning to face them as they move toward me to take leave with a handshake or a warm hug, and I feel the closeness of our encounter most directly -- the cellphones come out and photos to take home get taken ... .

I need to remember that -- as a primary source -- I carry the collective truth of my generation, for those who will succeed us.  In this last decade the record of life as we lived it should leave footprints for the next generation to grow into.  I'm privileged, through the great federal agency that provided the platform upon which I'm standing,  to be a link between then and now.

Maybe the power of Truth is being tested; and is there a greater purpose to be served in this final decade?

Tomorrow we will begin.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Insight from one who remembers ... .

In writing that last post I was reminded of another statement that has become an element in my talks... but that begs for delving more deeply:

There's a place where I'm describing my introduction to the planning team of our park back in 2003, and learning about the importance of the Albert Kahn-designed Ford Assembly Plant which had been built between the years of 1929-1931 on state-owned land.  It was built on air rights, a concept only recently adopted at that time.   It was an important piece of the Home Front story because it had been constructed to assemble Model A Fords but was converted to outfitting thousands of tanks and jeeps for the war in the Pacific theater during WWII.

In my talk I speak of that PowerPoint presentation being the first time I was able to see the scattered sites that define the park, and instantly recognize them as sites of racial segregation.  I state clearly that, "I was the only person in that room who could see that, because what gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering.  I was the only person who had any reason to know that.  There was no grand conspiracy to leave our history out, the real history was simply forgotten over time."

This morning as I slowly awakened -- just before opening my eyes to test the degree of still-darkness before sun-up -- it dawned on me that there must be many truths that only people of color are in a position to recall, and many more -- both black and newly-enlightened whites -- who care but are too young to have ever known.  There are important reasons why there are two Americas; if not more.

For instance, might there be less of a separation between black and white America if white America knew that when the Social Security System was created, two classes of workers were omitted; laborers and domestic servants?  It was the elimination of African Americans from that groundbreaking enabling system that brought stability to so many American lives and that created a permanent injustice that made the creation of wealth virtually impossible. We were locked out from the beginning by being forced to remain at the service worker level due to a lack of opportunity to rise above it. Discrimination in the work place would continue to be a barrier for decades, and in many places it still persists. 

The second was the GI Bill which guaranteed every returning veteran of WWII an education and a mortgage.  But the bill was administered locally instead of federally which enabled the local banker to control just who received mortgages and where.  The bill made possible the construction of the nationwide suburbs which were created for "whites only".  They were off-limits to non-whites through covenants written into the deeds of all new housing construction.

Nor could a returning black veteran use the Bill to enter college or graduate school unless said institutions were open to people of color.  At that time such institutions were few and far between and often involving traveling great distances from black population centers.   Have we forgotten that the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall financed his law school education by working as a Pullman porter?

It was then that older properties within city limits were made available to blacks as white flight took effect.  The inner cores of the cities became home to non-whites as more and more such properties were abandoned by white owners who could now rent out those homes as absentee landlords to renters without the financial means nor the stability to purchase property; a known pathway toward the building of personal wealth.   Instead, the payment of those rents provided mortgage payments for absentee white landlords who were already receiving government subsidies through the G.I. bill.  Only those black veterans who bought homes in red-lined districts could benefit by the bill because bankers sat in smug approval.   The practice would insure that housing would remain racially segregated, as would the schools in such districts.; and we all know how well that worked out.

Over time, commercial interests and services followed them out of the cities into the more affluent suburbs until today there are few banks, fewer food markets,  other service agencies within lower-income neighborhoods.  There are far fewer job opportunities with the disappearance of local retail businesses.  Low-skilled low-paying jobs that had always served as the first steps on the economic ladder for the young have all but disappeared.  Remember when there were paper routes and gas-pumping to do?

Are those the kids we see on city street corners, kids who have had to create their own underground economy fueled by the drug trade in order to survive?  This has proven to be one of the few alternatives to a minimum wage job at MacDonalds or Burger King, with little if any hope upon which to build a future.

Today there are fewer overt forms of racial restrictions on properties, but they still exist, informally.  The messages are encoded and the suburbs where Mel and I raised our children are still only about l% non-white, though that's gradually changing in some areas due to the gradual upward mobility of non-whites, but it's still minimal.

For those well-meaning and more enlightened folks (and Bill Cosby) who find themselves wondering just why those black folks can't get their act together, these now-forgotten truths may provide some understanding.  The problems are structural.  The effects of those errors in judgment have been costly, and by now there are few leaders who have lived long enough to see how damaging they've been, not only to black Americans who have been tragically under-served, but to society as a whole.  Tell that to those who see black America as over-advantaged and seduced into laziness by an undeserved sense of entitlements!

I was reminded yesterday as I watched the CSPAN coverage of the president's town meeting with folks in West Virginia -- worrying through some answers to the national drug abuse problem ... and the fact that, only now that the scourge of deaths by heroin overdoses has penetrated into White America, can we begin to entertain the notion that it may not be a problem of criminality after all, but an issue that must be addressed as a public health crisis.

... and how many young black and brown males had to idle their lives away behind bars or die violently in the drug wars before this could become visible to the powerful? 

Is it because we've forgotten these critical truths, or, that we've never known that such problems would bleed into all of America unless dealt with where they were most clearly visible? 

Is this the ultimate effect of Daniel Moynihan's ill-conceived concept of Benign Neglect in practice?

Daniel who?

Google it.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Strange how the mind works ... .

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by one of our interns, a college-aged student just entering what she hopes will be a career with the National Park System.  Allison wanted to have the interview as her contribution to an online blog, and since we share office spaces with other rangers at the headquarters in Richmond's Civic Center, it was an easy request to grant.

On that day we met in our conference room for a conversation that she would record, and that would serve as the basis for her assignment.

The chat was wide-ranging, covering a lifetime of starts and stops on my way to finding myself at 94 an active 5-day-a-week park ranger which is, in itself, a pretty startling story for the uninitiated.

This morning Allison sent her draft for my approval and/or corrections prior to submission.

In reviewing it I was curious that the point she highlighted in her sensitive and well-written paper was one that was almost an aside among what I might have considered far more dramatic vignettes from a pretty colorful life.

When I read the few sentences about an encounter I'd had some years ago with an African American woman from the community as we stood in line at the supermarket, I suddenly found myself in tears!  The few sentences were in response to Allison's questioning about just why it was that I'd made a statement in one of the radio interviews about why it is that I value the wearing of my NPS uniform as so important.   

"I was on my way home from work and had stopped for a few items for that night's dinner.  As we stood quietly together in line waiting for the cashier to check out our purchases, she asked politely if I worked at the prison?  (San Quentin prison is just across the bridge from Richmond.)  I answered with some chagrin since it was clear that this woman's frame of reference at seeing a uniform rose from such an unexpected place.  I remember feeling slightly amused (smug?) at how much her question exposed of her limited experience.  I should have guessed that this would come back to haunt me someday." 

That was then.

Since that time we've all lived through Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, and a constant stream of police actions resulting in the deaths of many unarmed young black men; the upsurge of media accounts of a failed justice system; the out-of-control mass killings; and meeting and interacting with Wanda Johnson, mother of the late Oscar Grant of the tragic and fatal Fruitvale station incident.

The depth of my understanding of that small incident in that supermarket took on epic proportions.  Maybe Allison read more into it than I did at the time, much to her credit.

with Sculptor Mario Chiodo's Remember Them
Today I'm tearful because -- after trying to connect the small audiences that I'm able to reach through my work -- I can see clearly that my unknown friend in that checkout line has experienced generations of conditioning that has created for her a reality that is counter to that of the "other" America.  It's not dissimilar to how we see police in those two divided Americas.  For her and for those with whom she shares lives, the justice system has always been a threat to our very survival, while to the other America -- it and the National Rifle Association exist for their protection in an increasingly dangerous world.

The National Park Service uniform held no meaning for her; it was beyond her sphere of recognition.  The prison system was something with which she has had lifelong experience, probably through no fault of her own -- but accepted as inevitable in life as an entire people have known it to be; how tragic!

The tragedy is that we've allowed ourselves to be segmented by such differing realities that we're no longer living in the same America, and neither America appears to be aware of it.  Our words have different meanings, and our lives are so differently defined by very real fractures in the foundations of an evolving society.

The wearing of my uniform is so much more than -- as I expressed it in that interview -- "upon being seen on the streets, in an elevator or escalator, I'm announcing a career path to children of color".

Tears may be a start, but in a very real way, it may mean that I'm being forced to look far deeper into the meaning of my work for ways to begin to knit together what is needed to bridge the divide.  That means putting my tiny pieces together with those of others toward creating a pathway leading us out of the wilderness of separation.

Could it be possible that -- of all the governmental agencies -- the National Park Service is best positioned to help us through to that "more compassionate future" that I so glibly have claimed over past months?

Or am I still not looking deeply enough?

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