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Saturday, October 17, 2009

An evening at the California College of the Arts -- a panel experience ... .

Some weeks ago a call came from a faculty member from the college asking if I'd participate in a panel before their students in Community Arts. The subject of the evening would be "Are we living in a post-racial era?" This sounded like a reasonable request, but first we needed to determine whether this was something being asked of me as an employee of the National Park Service, or whether (in this case) it was an invitation to my personal self? Being firmly identified in both worlds after all these years and in many roles, I don't always know. It's an important question in some instances, since without establishing the context in which I'm functioning at any given (public) moment -- quite rightfully -- I may not feel free to express opinions that might be seen as "political;" not permitted when in uniform. It was clear in this instance, that the persona being called upon here was Betty, a private citizen in simple black suit, with no need to be circumspect, but full-voiced and unrestrained.

Upon entering the building where the panel was to take place I was immediately faced with a two huge blowups of a familiar photo of President Obama and his family, set apart by some 12' feet but on the same wall was another of Prof. Henry Louis Gates handcuffed on his front porch surrounded by police in the now-famous incident of his being charged with breaking and entering his own home. These photos set the stage for the evening which was to deal with the subject of whether we were now in a post-racial era. No problem, right? This would be a cake walk. Or would it? Where on earth was the argument? There could be but one answer.

Dr. Chiang, the psychologist who was the other panelist, was new to the faculty, a member of another minority, and someone who would be working from a professional position; from an acquired store of knowledge and a distinguished academic record. This is always a little scary since I'm always working off life experiences with all the biases and the limitations that so often come with the lack of academic credentials. There is no way to prepare for this since I'm always speaking from life experience and what I've gleaned from them, and often with not much more. I tend to simply show up and depend upon an ability to listen closely then draw my presentation from whatever precedes "my turn" at the lectern. Risky, but it seems to work. It's probably an extension of the candor I work with each time I enter anything into this blog.

After an introduction by the school's president, Dr. Chiang rose to speak. We'd each been given 20 minutes -- then would entertain questions from those gathered. I'd learned from his bio that he'd recently published a book on hate crimes in America, and had joined the faculty after teaching for some years at the University of Iowa. (Would I be able to live up to expectations again by the skin of my teeth, or would this be the night that I bombed disgracefully?) What on earth was there to draw from except age, experience, and goodwill extended by the community?

Dr. Chiang rose to stand at the lectern with his briefcase close by, his notes nicely organized, the little gadget in hand with which to move through his well-prepared PowerPoint presentation. He started his talk with the large white screen behind him suddenly coming to life with a large "NO!" and we were off. This was his answer to the question of the day, and he would spend his next 20 minutes very effectively justifying that powerful graphic.

I listened closely; trying to form my response. Working hard to figure out just what on earth I could possibly say that would not simply be "ditto!," "me, too!" But as he spoke I found that I really didn't feel in total agreement with his presentation. In listening intently, I found myself not nearly as certain as he, about where we were/are in history.

As he ended, having made his case, it slowly dawned that my answer had to be "Yes, no, and, maybe." I realized that the experience of the Inauguration last January held the answer. That being that all of those states of being exist simultaneously -- perhaps each in its own dimension -- out of which I'd always had to find my way in order to create my own reality depending upon which dimension was dominating my life at any given moment in time.

Case in point: After several days of moving about Washington, D.C., walking the Capitol Mall among 2 million people of like mind, it felt as though I could have started a conversation in the middle of the 5th paragraph with anyone within arm's reach. And I did. I recall walking up to a total stranger, a woman in an ankle-length silver fox coat (it was 17 degrees!), asking if she would take a picture with me? Her arm quickly wrapped around my shoulder and we embraced as old friends while Martha snapped the photo.

We remained for a couple of days after the ceremonies in order to visit the museums, the galleries, the Department of Interior, and the National Park Service -- and over that time all of my new "very best friends," the revelers, boarded planes and buses; climbed back into their cars, and left the Capitol. Their places were now taken over by an estimated 20,000 Americans who had come to Washington on the occasion of the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade to demonstrate for their cause. It was as though a genie had swooped in during the night and transformed "Yes we can!" into "Oh no you don't!". There were signs and posters everywhere with bloody fetuses and shoutouts of angry rage at anyone supporting a woman's right to choose. They'd been there all the time. These realities exist as powerfully as all others, and with just as strong a sense of the "rightness" of those beliefs. We returned to the airport in a completely different dimension than the one that had brought us into town only a few days before -- at a time when -- upon landing -- the pilot welcomed the planeload to Washington and everyone on the plane applauded!

Which dimension we choose to inhabit is still dependent upon our capacity to trust and to love. And it's quite possible that the dynamism of our Democracy is driven by the constant clashing of realities; the waxing and waning of all of those social forces that constantly redefine who we are and what kind of future we're forging every moment of our existence, and out of which comes the vitality that stokes the fires of our passions. Maybe the secret is to make the most of those times when we're delivering on our best hopes, and pray that we'll be allowed enough time to create a mutually beneficial reality that most of us can share. Perhaps the opposition is necessary to keep us honest and ever-reaching toward the forming of that "... more perfect Union."

This Democracy is still a work in progress. Perhaps it must always be; each succeeding generation with the mission to rise to the task of nation-building, based upon our founding documents, traditions, and dedicated to the common good.

So these thoughts and words formed the gist of my presentation (though I never remember the exact words), and it felt right for the moment. But then that was the dimension in which I was living in that hour in that place.



Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that my presentation wasn't nearly as coherent as it appears to be here. I'm sure that I struggled with it on my feet; finding the right words at the right time to make my case. In the days that followed I've had time to clarify for myself and come to a fuller understanding. But the feelings are real, and were I to have a second run at the subject -- I'm more than ready.

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