Saturday, October 28, 2006

It has been an unusually busy week in an uncommonly busy life -- but I still seem to thrive on the intensity of it all ... .

On Thursday evening my (mentally retarded) daughter, Dorian, and I got together to attend the bi-monthly artist's reception at NIAD (National Institute for Artists with Disabilities). She had several pieces on exhibit and was anxious for me to see her new works.

Since she's moved into her own apartment across town, I've tried to keep some distance between us while she adjusts. I must admit, though, that she's been far more successful than I at the adjusting. It has always been important for us that I allow most contacts between us to originate with her. That way she doesn't have the feeling that I'm constantly worrying or checking up on her; that I don't trust her to handle her freedom or make the right choices in this world of risk and hazards. And, of course, she often takes risks and makes wrong choice -- as do the rest of us. I only call her at those times when I'm unable to keep my concerns in check. I suspect that much of my busyness comes from my need to remain distracted for her sake. Were it not for my work and all-consuming activism, her welfare might be at constant risk of my ill-placed motherly interference. We've struck a good balance, I think. Were I to die tomorrow, she would not be destroyed by the loss. Meanwhile, our cellphones serve as a new high tech umbilical cord -- and I'm grateful for their place in our lives.

The women's blouse above has been an important piece that she's devoted several months to. It is brilliantly beaded with her signature whimsical images of cats and kittens, and has been sold for $250, a real affirmation of her status as an artist. She has sold a number of pieces this year with half the sale price going to NIAD and half into her bank account. She is confident, productive, enthusiastic about her way of life, with a solid anchor in the "Outsider Arts" community. For that I am eternally grateful to the enlightened and unbelievably-patient NIAD staff of artists and teachers.

The same evening, a bit later, I attended another of the historian Donna Graves-created "Memories of Macdonald" activities. This time it was a "Talking About Macdonald" evening at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.

This was, oddly enough, a companion-piece to our experience at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock last week. Teens from the EBCPA presented an evening of their video work that grew out of oral histories they'd collected from the small merchants and other elders along long-deserted Macdonald Avenue -- when it was the main street of Richmond. They were wonderful, and were followed by 6 of the Center's drama students who had taken audiotapes of those interviews and created monologues which they performed to a delighted audience. They were marvelous!

Now -- over a single week's period -- I've experienced those five Little Rock Central High kids from their Memories project, and now the local version. I'm more determined than ever that we bring those powerful young forces together sometime this spring. I'm finding resonance to that idea among our staff. The idea originated with my travel companion and colleague, Lucy Lawliss, and has now bloomed into a real possibility.

Then, yesterday, another of our great bus tours of multiple park sites in the process of restoration or at least recognition -- happened -- this time for foundation representatives who might be interested in helping in the co-creation of Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Historical Park, along with the city of Richmond, the Rosie Trust, the Redevelopment Agency, and the National Park Service. It was another smashing success with the vision now radiating out into the larger community through work that I'm feeling more and more an essential part of. The shared excitement grows with each day, and the city is becoming deeply engaged in the learning and sharing of its history. That was made apparent at the EBCPA where a full house of nostalgic elders and fascinated youngsters traded stories on Thursday evening. It again surfaced yesterday when I watched potential funders drop their cynicism and really begin to see the potential for a new image for a city so long scarred by destructive times that were never faced up to or reconciled.

Photos: The top photo Dorian describes as "My Angry Painting," (about 4'x5') was done in oils over the past months since she's been on her own. I've no idea what inspired it, but the fact that she can express those feelings and recognize their genesis is great, I think. The second is described in the paragraphs above. (Double-click on it for a clearer look at the detail.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Not sure why I was so struck by this sign in the Central High School cafeteria ... .

but I found myself wondering how those prices would compare with those in our West County school district?

Central High (in comparison) appears so well maintained, so proud, so beautiful architecturally that it's hard not to assume that it is also the wealthy school home of well-to-do children. Not so. Its student body is 50% black, we were told, and by the looks of this list of prices -- just kids of ordinary means. By contrast, the highschools in our district resemble windowless prisons, with iron gates and security guards and metal detectors and surveillance cameras (in some cases), and the ambiance always of guardedness at all times. None of those things were visible at Central. The contrasts are stunning. I'd forgotten what schools were like in my youth, and what they're still like in the more affluent suburbs of the Bay Area.

I found myself wondering if the fact that Little Rock has found reconcilation by clearly marking the place of shame in its history and owning its past appropriately? It was wracked by horror and outrage almost fifty years ago, but (as in South Africa) faced its problems viscerally, found re-direction through strong leadership over the next decades, and moved on. That beautiful bronze monument to those children on the Capitol mall; the re-naming of streets to incorporate its newfound heroes; radical changes in unfair civic policies, all served to emancipate Little Rock from its racist past. That generation of elders created a better more accepting world for their young.

Maybe the lesson for us was that I now see a clear reason for the creation of that monument to the African American homefront worker in troubled battlescarred Fourth Street Park in the crime-infested Iron Triangle in Richmond. It would be the place marker and could allow for the belated facing-up-to and reconciliation that has never occurred here in the place where the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties may have been born. Maybe that's what is needed.

We, as a nation, have never really come to terms with slavery and its centuries-old scars that have now claimed yet another generation that's doomed to continuing hopelessness and degradation. This may be what Little Rock discovered in that place in 1957 when it "touched bottom" on the site of Central High leaving nowhere to go but up. Maybe the violent street deaths we're experiencing in this city -- currently rated the most dangerous in the state by far -- is that bottom place for us. Maybe we can find a way to rekindle the hopes and dreams of the grandparents who settled here during World War II who might then transmit some of that to the young.

Maybe we can do that together as the kids at Central High are doing through their Memories Project online -- by bringing that panel of high school students from Little Rock to show our youngsters how that's done. I'm sensing some interest among members of our staff to do just that.

I believe that we've already begun that process through Donna Graves (historian) and her "Memories of Macdonald" project that is bringing some of that to the surface even as we speak. That work is being done under the auspices of the city's redevelopment agency, the Richmond Museum, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, and the Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Historical Park.

It's a beginning. Maybe even the beginning.

We'll see.

Photos: Sign posted in Central High's cafeteria. The photo to the right is of the reflecting pool at the entrance of the school. It was recently restored to its original beauty by the National Park Service. There is a fountain at the lower center that will be restored soon.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Forty-nine years later ...

I wasn't prepared for finding these larger than life-sized bronze statues honoring the 9 courageous black students who -- in 1957 -- braved the forces of segregation, the Governor of Arkansas and his State Guard, and dared to enroll in Little Rock's Central High School as the first black students to try. The figures stand tall on a mound beside one of the state buildings at the Capitol. Below these figures are plaques with words of wisdom by each.

Experiencing the sight of this wondrous tribute less than 24 hours after being in the audience at Arkansas University (the site of the National Women's History Project Conference), where five young students combined to present a description of their memory project. Two of the five were African American girls, one was young girl who was born in Zimbabwe but raised in the US, and the remaining two were teenage white boys. Together they are creating and maintaining a website devoted to the memory of the events of 1957 that resulted in the closing of the schools in Little Rock for two years. (I hadn't known about that.)

Their website is known as the Little Rock Central High Memory Project. I'll look up the website and list it here when there is time to do so.

The sensitivity with which these young people explored their subject with us was emotional for us all. They had each interviewed their parents and grandparents about those events as well as neighbors and friends. Fifty years later and through great social turmoil, minds and behaviors have softened and changed dramatically. One of the white youngsters spoke of his mother sharing with him the fact that while still in school she had had an deep friendship with an African American male classmate. She had yielded to the pressure of the southern context in which they lived and they'd parted at some point in the relationship. She married his father and life went on. It was a dramatic revelation for a mother to make to her son, but was indicative of the kinds of revelations that have come from the memory project.

I thought about those kids we'd heard the day before as Lucy and I visited the monument. I thought about Minniejean Tricky who also made a presentation and who was one of the 1957 enrollees who had suffered the awfulness and who had been eventually expelled for spilling a bowl of chili on one of her tormentors in the cafeteria. Minniejean is now a grandmother, with a movie of her life now available on DVD. Her beautiful daughter, Spirit (ironically), is now a Park Service Ranger on the staff of the Central High National Park.

I now dream of the day when (with proper funding) we might bring that team of present-day Central High Memory Project kids to a Richmond High School or the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts to interact with our kids who have such difficult challenges to cope with. So many are ill-prepared to cope with the day-to-day hopelessness of their lives here in ths troubled city. What an astounding feat that would be if it could be managed. The only problem is that where the schools in Little Rock are still integrated 50 years after these events that so drastically shaped change, those of the city in which I live have re-segregated so totally that I'm not at all sure that what the Little Rock kids would have to teach us can be heard in our school environment. I am so aware of how much regression has taken place simply because we've not owned our history nor have we invited reconciliation, together, as a community. The National Park -- while it's being co-created by the city and the NPS -- should and will become the vehicle for doing just that, hopefully.

Now I understand the fervor in the voices, and the clasped hands of those Arkansans who gathered together on the lawn of the State House on that the night that the Clintons and the Gores and their young families received word of their winning the right to lead the nation from the White House. I remember how I stood in my living room on the West Coast and cried with them as we all sang and swayed to the strains of "We Shall Overcome." We believed in these youthful leaders. Little Rock has, indeed, overcome, though a closer look might well reveal that there is still some moppin' up to do. But for the most part we should all applaud Arkansas for doing what appears (still) in much of the country -- impossible to achieve.

Now I'll see if I can pull up the website of that remarkable Central High program so that tomorrow I can begin to find ways to bring some of that home ... .

Just maybe ...

Tomorrow I'll need to drive by the Fourth Street park campout against street violence -- to see if they still exist. Then I'll try to get back into my role as community outreach worker for the National Park Service. I'll make a major attempt at incorporating the experiences of the past three days in a way that will continue to give meaning to my days and purpose to my life.

Then I'll get back to finding some way to get that Faustian bargain going that will grant me another five or so years of wholeness and sanity.
But if not ... .

So be it.

Photo: Five Central High students making a presentation of their Memories Project before the conferees of the National Women's History Project at the University of Arkansas. (Click to enlarge thumbnails.)
Never in my wildest dreams ... .

would I ever have believed that I might someday visit a historic site that I still remember so vividly -- but at a time in life when I've now lived long enough to see the end results of the sacrifices made by the young people who lived it.

The experience at Little Rock held so many surprises that I'm not sure that I can find the words to describe it. But I owe it to those brave young souls to try.

Central High School will celebrate the 50th anniversay of the transforming events next fall. Since that time the site has become a part of the National Park System with a reception center under construction across the street, and full staffing already in operation.

While this magnificent structure continues to be a fulltime racially integrated high school (9th through 12th), it also is serving as a national park with ongoing tours ("...though we're careful to not interfere with those times when the bell rings and kids are moving from class to class ..."). The students and faculty know that they are playing a continuing educational role in the nation's history, and it shows. The buildings are meticulously maintained with gleaming tile floors, and everything "company ready" at all times. But mostly the curriculum continues to reflect the lessons of the times when Governor Faubus defied presidential orders to desegregate. Oh that we in the west had come to terms with the changing world as well. Any illusion that the west was ahead in this struggle disappeared somewhere on that walk through the halls of Central High.

Signs of the progress made under a very young 3-term Governor Bill Clinton are everywhere in Little Rock. A visit to the Presidential Library on Saturday dispelled any leftover feelings of resistance to the Clinton legacy and -- in its place -- came a strong feeling that I would do almost anything to extend the influence of that young couple, warts and all!

There is a replica of the oval office on the second floor of the Clinton Library with the huge round conference table (made by the manufacturers of the original in the White House), with each impressive high-backed chair bearing a bronze plaque on the back of which is the name and position of the cabinet member. In the spirit of exorcising long distance -- I sat for at least ten minutes in the chair to the immediate right of the president's chair that was marked, "Secretary of State." Laughed to myself as I imagined Condoleeza Rice in it and imagined myself cradling a voodoo doll to stick pins into -- out of sight under the table -- from that very chair! To my left sat an African American woman tourist seated in the chair from which Bill Clinton would have held forth. That looked okay to me -- perhaps not so strange at some future time. She looked perfectly comfortable in her assumed role of head of state; and didn't need a doll to prick. We all listened together from our seats of power as the guide described the room and its functions.

There's is so much to tell about this brief two-day trip, but let it suffice to say that in that busy presidential library, at least 50% of those silently reading words in the exhibits and listening intently to the interactive displays were people of color. Being surrounded throughout the city of Little Rock were the signs of just how deeply those young Clintons effected the times of their reign in the governor's mansion.

I came back shorn of all resistance to the possibility of Hillary running for the presidency, and of a Bill Clinton as First Husband. I'll work out the details with myself as we approach 2008, but I think you can enter my name in the supporter column. All of the hope I'd felt when Clinton and Gore stood on the steps of the governor's mansion in Little Rock when they won the presidency and vice-presidency returned in a rush when I saw blow-ups photos of that event. I recalled the feelings of exultation that flooded the country, and of how revived were our feelings that the torch had been passed to another generation; that of the Vietnam tragedy, and of all of the lessons learned by so many.

I realized how much I missed them and the hope they brought to us all.

I brought back a little card from the library store that says, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." The statement is from his inaugural address.

The library was a reminder of how impoverished we've become as a nation -- in terms of articulate and memorable presidential utterances.

How have we come to this?

Came home late last night and woke to the rantings of the Sunday morning pundits. Among them was a replay of Senator Barack Obama's interview in which he admitted to having presidential aspirations for the 2008 elections. Wondered as I listened if this isn't a brilliant stroke of Democratic strategizing (from the Progressive wing), to move Hillary to the Left? Obama is young and smart with a strong sense of balance in his political career. He expresses a rare humility. He is truly an amazing leader who someday (2012?) will surely be in serious contention for the top of the ticket. After much thought, I think that I'm about as ready as he probably is to see a woman head the ticket in 2008, and to allow the sharp Clinton team to re-enter the presidency in order to unify the party and the country -- while he prepares himself with more experience to continue the legacy of democracy as it aspires to be. I'm not sure I want to see anyone I care about to be placed in the position of having to right what is now so terribly wrong with our nation and the world at this point. Obama is surely aware of the advantages of having the Clinton's precede him in office, and another six year term in the Senate would provide the experience he'll need to succeed in office.

Yes, I firmly believe that someone is using the spectre of introducing a legitimate competitor for the nomination from the Left to draw Hillary Clinton away from the Right of Center positions she's being lured to embrace in the quest for the presidency. If you'll recall, it was Bill's move to the Right (called Centrist) that insured his second term to the dismay of the Republicans and to those of us who formed his base. It was this that so disappointed us. The debate will be enriched by Obama's being out there as a threat to Hillary's ascendancy to the top. It almost worked for the Republicans as they at one time seriously considered the candidacy of Colin Powell. That would have come from the Left Wing of the Republican Party -- and they were defeated. Watching this unfold over the next two years will be fascinating, right? But at that time the nation toyed with the notion of a man of color as world leader -- and accepted the possibility. We'll be ready for consideration of Senator Obama, I believe, with fewer reservations.

I believe that it will take the strengths of a Hillary Clinton and the boldness and audacity of a First Husband working in concert with her to wrest us from the mountain of international and domestic problems we've suffered over the past few years. Through their combined efforts (we had them both during his terms of office), we may begin to regain the international esteem that has been lost, and just possibly, the self-respect we've begun to question at home.

More tomorrow.