What 5 Seconds of 'This Is Us' Confirmed for Me About Diversity Education

I recently watched This Is Us in its entirety. It’s a charming show with many tender moments, but it was a five second interaction during the Christmas episode that really stuck with me as an educator. In the episode, Randall’s biological father William brings his partner to the family’s Christmas Eve festivities. Randall appears perplexed, but fortunately, his young daughter Tess is there to clear things up for him. It goes something like this:

Randall (to wife Beth): Has William ever mentioned Jesse before?

Tess: It’s just like the book with two dads from school.

Randall: What?

Tess: Grandpa’s gay, Dad.

And she goes on her merry way. I know it’s a fictionalized conversation, but as a teacher, I thought there was a lot to unpack in terms of implications for diversity education, specifically efforts to be LGBTQ-inclusive.

First, it’s important for students to have books that provide both mirrors and windows. That the latter has been provided by her teachers is apparent in Tess’s reaction. Children’s literature provides insight into the lives of those who are different, and that’s key to developing understanding and empathy. When teachers share books like A Tale of Two Daddies and Heather Has Two Mommies, they expose kids to diversity and help them see the common thread through all families: love!

Next, kids need the vocabulary to talk about difference respectfully. Many school-age kids use “gay” as a put-down, often to mean “stupid.” When they understand what the word really mean (“a man and a man or a woman and a woman who love each other”), they’re less likely to use it as a slur. Just like Tess did, armed with the necessary terminology, kids can not only name difference (which is developmentally appropriate, by the way) but start to appreciate it.

Finally, elementary kids are not too young to learn about LGBTQ topics. The themes of family, respect, and love are completely appropriate for young children. Sex, for those who are worried about it, is not discussed beyond “who you love.” It was easy for Tess to accept her grandfather’s partner because she’d been provided accurate, matter-of-fact information about LGBTQ people. å

What I love most about this snippet is that what is a huge revelation for her father is positively shrug-worthy for Tess. And this is the case in schools throughout the nation. Kids are more concerned about fidget spinners and lunch menus than they are about gender markers and bathrooms (unless we make those an issue that they do have to worry about). As adults, we have a lot to learn from the open minds and hearts of children — kids like Tess who teach us that Grandpa being gay is no big deal.

 

 

 

"We Dine Together": Reasons to Hope

Turning on the news has become an event for which I have to seriously brace myself. The world is hurting, from Syria to Egypt to Stockholm. On the homefront, Congress is in chaos, hateful rhetoric has become mainstream, and everyday citizens seem more divided than ever. Millennials are a much-maligned group, but when I need to be encouraged, I look to them. A prime example of what I’m referring to is what’s happening at a high school in Florida, recently featured in On the Road with Steve Hartman (as part of the CBS Evening News it doesn’t pain me to watch).  

Denis Estimon, now a senior at Boca Raton Community High School, created the student group “We Dine Together” with one purpose: that no one would have to eat lunch alone. Group members roam the dining area in search of kids who look like they might need a friend. They shake hands, introduce themselves, and sit and talk. If the student is interested, they invite them to eat lunch with them in a nearby classroom.

It’s a small gesture, but it can mean the world. Estimon knows this firsthand. As an immigrant from Haiti, he entered first grade knowing absolutely no one. As a popular student, it would have been easy for Estimon to forget what it was like to be a new student. Instead, he founded a club and recruited football players, cheerleaders, and others at the top of the high school food chain to make his school a place where anyone who wants friendship and inclusion can have them without having to change who they are.

Can a little lunch club do all that? Actually, yes it can. The lunchroom can be an incredibly isolating place. There’s a social hierarchy that “must” be observed, and exclusive cliques make it hard for new students to make friends. In the teen world, students who dare to be different may be ostracized. Given the current political climate and with the specter of deportation over their heads, refugee and immigrant students may be worried about the well-being of their families and their own futures. According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey, 75% of transgender students feel unsafe at school. So, yes, a little hospitality can go a long way.

When I’m feeling disheartened by the direction our country is going, I take comfort in knowing that the upcoming generation is the most tolerant and progressive in history. I trust the kids who are making the lives of their classmates better to handle the problems of the future with kindness, dignity, and compassion.

Review: Gender Revolution

I finally had time to sit down and watch Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. The National Geographic documentary, now available for streaming on Hulu, runs an hour and a half and is remarkably comprehensive. I highly recommend it for anyone seeking to learn more about the complexities of gender.

The special is divided into three sections. First, Couric explores what it means to be intersex. She highlights the relatively arbitrary way in which doctors have decided whether a baby with anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definition of male or female, should be a boy or a girl. The second portion is devoted to transgender people. Couric interviews Gavin Grimm, the trailblazing trans teen who has become the face of the nationwide bathroom debate. Finally, Couric explores the rapidly expanding views about gender among youth. A panel of college students explains why they reject the gender binary and embrace infinite gender identities.

The documentary features doctors, scientists, and experts in the field, but most compelling are the stories of real people and their unique gender journeys. Brian, who is intersex, was raised as a girl and only learned the truth from his mother when he noticed that the name on his birth certificate had been whited out. There’s the beautiful example of the loving relationship between Kate and Linda Rohr, who were married for 45 years before Kate transitioned. The show concludes with an interview with model Hari Nef and former tennis player Renee Richards, who represent opposing ends of the generational spectrum. Both transgender women, they are navigating the generational divide over gender.

Couric is an ideal host. Unassuming and down to earth, she makes it clear she’s learning, too. She laughs at herself when she makes a mistake (even including a slip-up in the credits), but it’s apparent that she wants to get it right. There were a few moments that were cringe-worthy, and critics have called her “befuddled.” I know that Couric has made some missteps in the path, but I for one appreciate the way she allows for teachable moments. For many, transgender topics are uncomfortable because people just don’t have the knowledge or experience. Couric allows others to learn from her example (both positive and negative). Her vulnerability and relatability make this show accessible to the exact audience that needs to see it.

This documentary is essentially a primer on gender topics, but it’s very well done. It should be required viewing for teachers and school staff, parents, and policy-makers. Learning about those who are different through “windows” like these is an essential piece in building empathy. If you are ready to explore the evolving concept of gender and better understand others, Gender Revolution is a great place to start.

Recognizing Privilege

Nothing seems to rile people up quite like talking about privilege. On the one hand, there are those benefitting from their privilege who don’t want admit or be blamed for it. On the other, there are people who hurl the word as an accusation. Frankly, neither is productive. You cannot deny that privilege exists, nor can you disregard a person entirely on account of the fact that they possess certain social advantages. The recognition of privilege is an important milestone, but it is a personal one – a step on the journey toward social responsibility.

I recently read Roxane Gay’s excellent essay on privilege in her book Bad Feminist. I could never put it as eloquently as she did, but I do feel inspired to share my thoughts and reflections. Gay defines privilege in the following way: “Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor.” She deals deftly with the two sides, as I’ll explain below.

Deniers: People have a hard time accepting that they have privilege. It’s not their fault, they contend, but neither is it something they earned. I’ve heard many people, particularly on social media, who argue in this way: “I don’t have privilege. I’m white, but I grew up poor.” Gay’s response is as follows: “the acknowledgement of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized.” You’re not being asked to discount your own suffering, but the fact remains that if you live in the developed world, you have things other people want… and that’s the definition of privilege.

Accusers: It’s not surprising that when you wield the word “privilege” as a weapon, people become defensive. As Gay states, “Too many people have become self-appointed privilege police.” We can’t hope to change hearts if we back people into a corner where their only option is to entrench. If we succeed in silencing them, we lose out on valuable discourse.

There’s this misconception that I “get” to write about issues of diversity and equity because I’m a member of certain marginalized communities. I would argue that it’s my privilege that gives me the platform to do so. I’m a multiracial female atheist who grew up poor, a child of divorce. However, I’m also a U.S. citizen and passport holder, able-bodied, college educated, middle class, married to a straight man, and have easy access to the Internet. I volunteered abroad, and when you see human rights abuses and abject poverty up close, you can’t help but realize how lucky you are. In fact, I believe it’s my recognition of my privilege, not the ways in which I have suffered, that have brought my heart to the social justice movement.

My home district settled a racism lawsuit shortly before I began teaching there, and one requirement was professional development in diversity. My first year, all school staff had to read Gary Howard’s You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Know. I thought it was excellent, but then again, I’m not white. Many white teachers felt called out and targeted for their privilege, which is understandably uncomfortable. The fact is, all of us as educators have to suck it up and evaluate our privilege, but we can do that through discussion and observation rather than confrontation.

Evaluating one’s privilege is difficult but important work. Here’s a place to start: https://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/how-privileged-are-you?utm_term=.da37Ky2Yz#.psEnDKWQm. It’s a good first step to start thinking about the different obstacles people have to navigate in their daily lives, obstacles you may never encounter. Perhaps this will inspire you to action, or simply to live your life more mindfully. If we’re to move forward, we must get to a point where my experience doesn’t negate yours and vice versa, where “multiple truths can coexist.”  

Supporting Trans Students in the Trump Era

In 2016, the Department of Education and Department of Justice issued federal guidelines for supporting transgender students in a landmark move. The Obama administration policy, in addition to ensuring other rights, allowed students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The order was put on pause due to a nationwide injunction that barred its enforcement, but it was widely viewed among the LGBTQ community and its allies as a civil rights victory. That work was seemingly undone with a stroke of President Donald Trump’s pen when, under the advisement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he rescinded the protective measures for trans students.

For those of us caring adults who know how important school safety is to transgender students (according to the 2015 GLSEN School Climate Survey, 75% of trans students felt unsafe at school), the revocation of the new rules seems reckless and needlessly cruel. However, it’s important to remember what this withdrawal does and does not mean. Trump’s actions do remove federal protections for transgender youth. However, the following are still true:

·      The DOE/DOJ guidelines are still best practice for supporting transgender students.

·      Transgender students may still have protections under state laws.

·      Transgender students’ rights are still covered by Title IX, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex.  

·      Affected students and parents can file suit for discrimination, and schools face legal liability.

·      No school is prevented from proactively addressing the needs of trans students, adopting inclusive policies, and creating safe school climates.

Therefore, administrators, teachers, and support staff (regardless of the change) should continue to support transgender students in the following ways:

·      Employing bullying and harassment policies that specifically enumerate gender identity.

·      Creating gender neutral dress codes and enforcing them equally.

·      Using the names and pronouns consistent with a student’s gender identity.

·      Providing access to bathrooms and other facilities consistent with a student’s gender identity.

·      Allowing students to participate in sports that are consistent with their gender identity.

·      Protecting the privacy of trans students.

Perhaps most important, we must be advocates for our transgender students. As was made clear on February 22nd, they need us now more than ever.

Scout's Honor At Last

The Boy Scouts of America isn’t exactly known for being progressive when it comes to inclusion. Although they have eventually come down on the side of equality, it can seem like a reluctant shuffle rather than a bold leap. That’s why I was so pleased by the BSA’s recent announcement to allow transgender boys.

The announcement came about a month after a transgender boy in New Jersey was kicked out of his Cub Scout pack. According to the BSA, the child did not meet eligibility requirements, as the organization uses the information on the child’s birth certificate and their “biological sex.” The Girl Scouts, by contrast, welcome transgender girls who are recognized by family and school and live culturally as a girl.

In the statement released in late January, the BSA reversed their birth certificate rule, deciding instead to accept members based on the gender they indicate on their application. This means that boys like Joe Maldonado, the 8-year-old transgender boy who was removed from his troop, can officially participate. And participate he did, becoming the first openly transgender member of the Boy Scouts just one week after the policy reversal.

This was a relatively quick about-face for the Scouts, considering it took several decades for them to accept lesbian, gay, and bisexual scouts and troop leaders. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Scouts ended their ban on openly gay youths joining the organization. It took two more years for them to allow openly gay adult leaders.

When I was in college, I remember my mom’s best friend explaining that the Mormon Church had an alternative scouts program ready to deploy if the BSA ever accepted LGBT people. I can appreciate the pressure the BSA feels from conservative parents and supporters who threaten to leave. However, I have a hard time comprehending how including transgender children could hurt anyone, whereas a ban does hurt someone: the child who is excluded. 

At the end of the day, the Boy Scouts of America did the right thing. This is a Good Turn, and a move in the right direction.

My Refugee Family

I am a refugee descendent. And not too far removed, either. My biological father and nearly all his family escaped Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975. In a rickety old fishing boat, they somehow managed to arrive in Hawaii. From there, U.S. ships ferried them to a camp in California. My dad and uncle were sponsored by a couple in Washington through their church. Gradually, as they got their feet under them, the rest of the family was able to follow.

Coming to the United States was a difficult and humbling process. In South Vietnam, my dad had been a captain in the army, my grandfather ran transportation for the city of Saigon, and my uncle (who did not escape and was placed in a reeducation camp) was the Minister of Economics. All three were in danger of being executed. Two of my aunts were pregnant on the trip over, and my grandmother had what she later learned was uterine cancer.

My family learned English. They enrolled their children in schools. They took jobs wherever they could. My diplomat’s wife auntie, who had a chef, maid, and nanny for each of her three children in Vietnam, went to work in a fish cannery in Alaska. They lived communally until each family could find and afford their own place. They are the very essence of the term “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” That aunt I mentioned? She put all her kids through college. For me, my family truly embodies the American Dream.

That’s why President Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees last Friday upset me so much. The order prevents refugees from entering the country for 120 days, bans Syrian refugees indefinitely, and places a hold on visas already granted to people from seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen). It also stipulates that Christian refugees receive priority. The whole thing is, in my opinion, unconscionable. It’s not who we are as a nation. We are the country of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” When we have welcomed those seeking freedom to our shores, we have benefitted. When we turned away Jews fleeing the Nazis in WWII, it led to their deaths.

Ostensibly, the order is to protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks. I don’t feel any safer after a week. I know the screening process for entry into the United States is already extensive and thorough. I agree with the experts who say it won’t help protect us because people from the banned countries aren’t the ones who have carried out terrorist attacks. I think this order is just about as effective as taking your shoes off at TSA. It’s an illusion of safety. As the wife of a deployed soldier, I worry about the impact this will have on the counterterrorism effort. Frankly, I think it gives terrorist groups more fodder and may aid in their recruitment efforts.

But it’s not just bad on paper; it’s terrible in practice. Initially, the ban applied to people with valid visas and green cards (the latter has since been rectified). Implementation of the measures has wreaked utter havoc on major airports across the country. Refugees, travelers with visas, and American citizens alike found themselves detained, questioned, barred from entering, and even sent back. When a new rule leads to a breastfed infant being denied access to her mother and a Harvard infectious disease researcher being denied entry, “poorly executed” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  

It’s time to take action. Let’s channel the fervor of the hundreds of volunteer immigration lawyers who set up shop at airports to offer free legal help for those affected by the order. What can you do?

·      Share your support for refugees and immigrants on social media.

·      Donate to the ACLU.

·      Attend a rally or march.

·      Become a refugee advocate.

·      Patronize businesses who support refugees (e.g. Starbucks, Lyft).

·      Volunteer to tutor refugee students learning English.

We are a nation of refugees and immigrants. I look at my relatives, and I see successful, hard-working, family-oriented, contributing citizens. I wonder what this country might have missed out on if we’d turned away the Vietnamese 41 years ago. I certainly wouldn’t be here. I am deeply indebted to my country, and it is with a grateful heart that I plead to the “better angels of our nature.” Let’s make sure those fleeing war, poverty, and persecution get the same chance my family did: a chance at the American dream.

Anyone But Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, is wholly unqualified for the position. DeVos has neither an education degree nor teaching experience. She did not attend public school herself, and neither did her children. She has no experience with the federal student loan program that put me and most everyone I know through college. Her confirmation hearing proved her to be ignorant (willfully or otherwise) regarding basic issues of public education. She’s not just inexperienced; she’s categorically unfit.

It’s not only her lack of experience that makes her a terrible nominee for Education Secretary; her past actions and positions are also troubling, to say the least. Under the guise of education advocacy and reform, DeVos led efforts in her home state of Michigan to implement vouchers (in which taxpayer money is used to send students to private and religious schools) and expand for-profit charter schools that operate without accountability. They have not proven more effective, most of them performing below their public counterparts. Make no mistake: this isn’t about “school choice.” It’s about dismantling public education, privatizing the system, and monetizing our children.

DeVos’s performance at her confirmation hearing didn’t do anything to allay my fears. When Senator Al Franken asked her to give her thoughts on the debate over proficiency vs. growth on assessments, she appeared confused. She refused to give a response other than “I support accountability” when Senator Tim Kaine asked if all schools receiving federal money (public, charter, or otherwise) should be equally accountable. Isn’t it obvious that all federally supported schools should be held to the same standard? Apparently not. I was most shocked, however, when DeVos couldn’t say definitively that guns have no place in schools, instead suggesting that schools might need them to protect against… grizzly bears.

All these things trouble me deeply, but as an advocate for equal rights (especially as they pertain to children), I’m most worried about how DeVos’s confirmation would affect these groups:

1)LGBTQ Youth: Although I was relieved to see DeVos distance herself from conversion therapy (a widely discredited and dangerous practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity), I worry that she won’t stand up for LGBTQ students and their families. According to the Human Rights Campaign, DeVos’s personal foundation has donated to Focus on the Family (which promotes conversion therapy), the Becket Foundation (which advocates for taxpayers funding discriminatory schools), and the Thomas More Law Center (which has challenged the constitutionality of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act).

LGBTQ students are frequently the targets of bias-based bullying in schools. Under questioning by Kaine, DeVos said she looked forward to “reviewing” the provision that schools receiving tax dollars comply with reporting requirements on harassment and bullying. How is that even something she needs to consider? Shouldn’t all our students be safe in all our schools?

2)Students with Disabilities: Perhaps most alarming to me was that when asked if all schools that receive federal funding should have to meet the requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), DeVos said it’s best left to the states. IDEA ensures that children with disabilities have the same opportunity and access to a quality education as their non-disabled peers. Upon further questions from Senator Maggie Hassan, DeVos revealed that she may have “confused” the federal law. Either she doesn’t care about protecting students with disabilities or she’s not familiar with a cornerstone piece of education and civil rights legislation. That’s bad news either way.

DeVos’s school choice advocacy also has the potential to harm students with disabilities. For example, Hassan expressed concern about private schools accepting vouchers on the condition that students waive their rights under IDEA. These schools then do not have to provide special education services. What happens then? Students with disabilities return to the public school and the private school keeps the money, leaving the public school with even fewer resources to serve them (after their budgets have been gutted to create charters and fund vouchers).  

If you’ve done the research, watched the confirmation hearing, and concluded, as I have, that Betsy DeVos must not head the Department of Education, please do the following:

1)Sign a petition. Here are links to a few:

http://edadvocacy.nea.org/nea/app/write-a-letter?1&engagementId=264253

http://networkforpubliceducation.org/2016/11/tell-your-senator-to-vote-no-for-betsy-devos/

https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-your-senator-to-vote-no-for-betsy-devos

2)Call your senators and demand a “no” vote. You’ll find contact information here:  https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/.

It will take a few minutes of your time, but the consequences of failing to act will be dire. Our nation’s children are counting on us. Make the call.

 

Living Without Gender in Japan

Toman Sasaki is nothing short of a beautiful individual. A young Japanese man, Toman contours his delicate features with make-up, sports perfectly manicured nails, and often dons platform heels. It’s a look we might call feminine, but Toman would disagree. According to him, the concept of gender is unnecessary. And he’s not alone. Toman is one of many genderless danshi living his truth in Japan.

Gender bending fashion is nothing new in Japan. In fact, the genderless danshi movement can be seen as an outgrowth of the genderless Kei trend. It started when genderless models were featured in a Tokyo Girls Collection fashion show in 2015. Although the androgynous look applied to both men and women, it really took off for the genderless boys. The look included dyed hair, makeup, nail polish, colored contact lenses, and flashy clothing and accessories. A more unisex style for men may indeed have been inspired by anime (Japanese cartoons) as well as a slew of boy bands.

Whatever their inspiration, they’re drawing a discrete line between how one dresses and one’s sexuality. It’s a great lesson in the difference between sex and gender. In general, sex refers to anatomy, whereas gender is what a person knows themselves to be inside (whether that be male, female, genderfluid, or something else entirely). Both of these are completely separate from sexual orientation (who one is attracted to). It’s also important to look at the difference between gender identity and gender expression. The latter refers to one’s internal sense of self, and the latter to how a person outwardly expresses their gender via presentation, such as clothing, hairstyle, and patterns of speech, and mannerisms.   

For the danshi, their fashion choices have nothing to do with their sexuality, nor are they “trying to be women.” Many genderless models are straight. Those who are gay aren’t necessarily dressing that way because of their sexual orientation. Rather, they view their style as a way to express who they truly are as people. They are not bound by gender norms. It’s a rejection of traditional standards of beauty. They are redefining the definition of masculine and feminine, and defying that those concepts even need to exist.

I first learned of the genderless danshi through this excellent New York Times video: https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/asia/100000004852253/genderless-in-japan.html?smid=pl-share. As this short film makes clear, the choices these young men make are not easy. In Japan, as in the United States, many people still cling to so-called traditional roles for men and women. The danshi are subject to shaming and judgement. However, they are also wildly popular, especially with young girls. Toman’s manager hopes that as they become more mainstream, more young people will feel empowered to live their lives true to themselves.

For me, the most striking comment that Toman makes is this: “If a person is living the way they want, that is manly to me.” Isn’t that when we are most successful? Most attractive? Happiest? When we aren’t forced to hide a part of ourselves for the “comfort” of others? I certainly think so. I applaud Toman and those like him who throw off the shackles of gender to live as their unique selves. Would that we all could be so bold and so brave.

2016: Triumphs and Tragedies

2016 is a year most people would like to forget. We lost a Supreme Court justice, “The Greatest,” Professor Snape, Princess Leia, and a score of icons of music, stage, and screen. On the world stage, terror wreaked havoc and the people of Syria suffered endlessly. In our own country, we slogged through what seemed like the longest election cycle in history, with an ending few predicted. In the area of diversity and equity, it was a year of both successes and disappointments. As we prepare to ring in the new year, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the central civil rights stories of 2016.

Triumphs

Target: Anyone who knows me will tell you of my deep and abiding love for Target. I love that this company has eliminated gendered categorization of toys. They really won my loyalty, however, when they established a bathroom policy allowing employees and guests to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. There was backlash, and Target has been hurt financially by a boycott spearheaded by the American Family Association. CEO Brian Cornell has defended Target’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, although he also announced plans to expand family bathrooms (this does not change the policy).

Our Progressive Military: As a military spouse, the progress the armed forces have made toward LGBT equality this year make me especially proud. On May 17th, Eric Fanning became the first openly gay secretary of a branch of the U.S. military when he was confirmed as Secretary of the Army. The following month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced an end to the ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military. Transgender individuals can now serve openly, may not be discharged on the basis of their transgender status, and will receive any medical care their doctor deems necessary (including hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery).

Monuments and Museums: In June, President Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument in honor of the 1969 Stonewall uprising. It is the first national monument to LGBT rights. In September, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C. Founding Director Lonnie G. Burch III says, “This Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans.”

Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill: The abolitionist, freedom fighter, and American hero will replace Andrew Jackson as the face of the $20 note. She will become the first Black woman to grace the front of U.S. paper currency.

Historic Nominations: When Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, he became the first Jewish politician to win a presidential nomination contest. Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate was also unprecedented, as she was the first woman to head a major party’s presidential ticket.

#NODAPL: After months of peaceful protest (and shameful police brutality) against a pipeline that would have bulldozed sacred sites and threatened the water supply, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe (and other First Nations who joined them in support) celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers’ denial of an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is most certainly a win for Native American rights, but the fight is far from over.

Tragedies

HB2: Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina passed a hateful bill that prevents cities from allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. It also undermines discrimination protections for all marginalized groups. Recording artists, film studios, and corporations have refused to do business in the state in order to put pressure on the legislature to repeal HB2. The NBA pulled its All-Star Game from Charlotte, and the NCAA moved all 2016-17 playoff games out of the state. The hope is that the economic impact will force the state to do the right thing. The Human Rights Campaign found that 62% of North Carolinians oppose the bill, and Governor McCrory was the only incumbent governor to lose in 2016. Unfortunately, the General Assembly recently failed to repeal HB2, even though it was part of a deal negotiated by the Governor-elect.

Pulse Nightclub Shooting: On June 23, Omar Mateen opened fire at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 and injuring more than 50, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. It was a both a tragic loss of life and a terrifying reminder of the vulnerability of the LGBT community to hate crimes.

Police Brutality: Stories of Black men gunned down by police officers seemed to run on endless loop this year. We say their names, and we remember: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott. Shortly after the shootings of Sterling and Castile, five police officers were killed in Dallas. We know that racism is endemic in our system of justice. Chicago and Baltimore were studied this year and found to be plagued by systemic racism. Moving forward, we must find a way to undo this, as well as to respect those in the line of duty while still holding them accountable for their actions.

The Election of Donald Trump: It’s no secret I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I understand there are people who dislike her, but I found her to be a compelling candidate who stood for what I stand for and would be a champion of the disenfranchised. Trump made multiple sexist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic remarks during his campaign, and I find his policies abhorrent. True, perhaps I don’t know for sure what kind of president he will be. But the nominations of “enemies of equality” to his cabinet as we close out the year haven’t made me feel any better.

As always, in the battle for equal rights, we seem to take one step forward and two steps back. While I am pleased by our successes, they seem to be mostly symbolic. It’s not that symbolism isn’t important; it’s that we need to be fighting to make change in the daily lives of people who have historically been persecuted. In 2017, I’m committing to being part of George Takei’s Resistance, lobbying my lawmakers to fight Trump and his ilk from sending us back in time, working with educators to make schools welcoming for all, and spreading the gospel of inclusion through my writing. We have made some strides, yes, but we have so very far to go.

Black Santa Matters

For the first time in its quarter of a century history, the Mall of America has a Black Santa Claus. This year’s Santa is Larry Jefferson, a retired army vet from Texas who’s been playing the big man in red since the tender age of 12. Landon Luther, owner of Santa Experience, was looking for “a Santa for everyone” and selected Jefferson at a Santa Convention where he was the only African-American out of 1,000 Kris Kringles. This. Is. Awesome.

What’s not so awesome? The racist trolls who made insulting remarks on a CBS Minnesota report on the story. Things got so bad that the comments function had to be turned off.  The Star Tribune turned theirs off before the article was even published, anticipating a racist backlash. Some white supremacists even called for a boycott on Mall of America. That’s fine. I don’t want them in the line to see Father Christmas with my daughter any more than I want those who hate transgender people in the bathroom with me at Target.

Some of the rhetoric is less blatantly hateful, but equally insidious. Take this argument: “I understand the need for inclusiveness, but in the story, Santa was white.” To be honest, tradition is a poor excuse for leaving people out. Especially when that tradition is factually inaccurate. Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, a Greek Christian bishop known for his generous giving to the poor. He was born in what is now Turkey and is usually depicted as having tan or olive skin. The “jolly old elf” who drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (what we think of as the “traditional” story) was brought to us in 1823 by Clement C. Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas. We got our current (white) image of Santa Claus from Thomas Nast’s 1881 drawing, which was co-opted and popularized by…Coca-Cola.

Another problematic argument: “It shouldn’t matter what color Santa is.” That’s true – it shouldn’t matter. It’s the adults that are making it an issue. As Jefferson himself says, “It’s no big deal. I’m still Santa, I just happen to be a Santa of color.” The kids are fine with it.  Jefferson describes a time when a little boy pointed out that he was brown. He simply explained that Santas come in many colors. The kid replied “Oh!”, took his candy cane, and went on his merry way. For some children, however, having a Black Santa is a big deal, and for a very important reason. They finally have a Santa who looks like them.

This is a momentous occasion to be lauded. Frankly, it’s a long time coming. But still, the Mall of America is the largest mall in the nation. I realize Santas of color are nothing new, but it’s great to have one become mainstream. As my daughter gets older, she’ll have the opportunity to sit on the laps of many different Santa Clauses. If she asks me why they don’t all look the same, I’ll explain (as Jefferson does) that Santa is a reflection of all of us. What matters is the spirit of St. Nicholas in each of the Santas: the joy of selfless giving. My only requirement for Santa? Someone who radiates love. And Santa Larry does just that.

Dress Codes: A Study in Sexism

I remember vividly the time that, as a sophomore at a conservative Christian college, a friend of mine mentioned that I should consider changing how I dressed. He was concerned that my mid-thigh skirt and v-neck sweater might cause my male classmates to “stumble.” I was taken aback and then completely incensed. It was such a double standard! No one was worried about my spiritual path with the never-ending parade of college guys playing Frisbee golf with their shirts off.

Don’t think this was some isolated incident on a college campus 15 years ago. This attitude is prevalent throughout our society. You can see it in the Brock Turner rape case, the multiple sex assault coverups and scandals  at universities across the nation, and President-elect Donald Trump’s degrading comments about women, to name a few. You can also witness it in our schools, where it manifests itself every day via sexist dress codes.

Gendered dress code problems are abundant nationwide; I’ve chosen three examples here to highlight different aspects of the controversy. First, there’s Pinellas District in Florida, which banned cheerleaders from wearing their uniforms to class even though the uniforms were school-issued. Kenilworth Junior High School in California barred leggings for girls because the boys were getting “too distracted.” A student in Clay County School District had to wear a “dress code violation” outfit in order to avoid an in-school suspension. In case you thought you read any of those wrong, go ahead and give them a google. Sadly, you’ll find many related stories of girls being subjected to “inspections” and getting pulled out of class, suspended, and shamed. (While I’ll focus on gendered dress codes in this post, there is also a significant issue with schools banning hairstyles that are popular with Black students and religious headwear, particularly for Muslim students.)

Some people don’t see why it’s such a big deal, so let’s analyze why these dress codes are problematic. When a student is suspended or sent to detention, she is removed from her learning environment. Any time a student misses out on learning opportunities, we should be concerned, but especially when it’s for a minor infraction (which perhaps shouldn’t be considered an infraction at all). When a dress code requires that girls where one thing and boys another (as at prom or graduation), it forces students to conform to gender norms. This is inappropriate for all children, but makes things very difficult for transgender students if they are not allowed to dress according to their gender identity or if they identify as nonbinary. Some of the punishments, such as having to put on baggy pants or Bermuda shorts, are designed to be humiliating. This type of consequence is totally counterproductive to raising girls who are body positive (which is essential to their mental, emotional, and physical well-being). Finally, it sends a dangerous message. To girls, it says that they are nothing more than a distraction and that harassment is their fault, which is evocative of the ridiculous and harmful “she was asking for it” argument. To boys, it says that they are incapable of controlling themselves in the company of women, issuing them a “get out of jail free” card for bad behavior. Essentially, sexist dress codes perpetuate rape culture.

There are certainly arguments to be had for enforcing dress codes. In many ways, going to school is like training for life in the grown-up world. Lots of workplaces have dress codes in place. Some restaurants require certain attire. I understand that, and I support dress codes to the extent that they protect the safety of students. I also plan to teach my daughter about dressing appropriately for different environments, but that’s my job as a parent. We’re talking about public schools here. The issue is not the dress code per se; it’s the fact that it usually only pertains to girls. If the guidelines are only about midriffs, short shorts, bras, and spaghetti straps, that’s not right. If the dress code truly is for all students, then they should be disciplined in the same way. Boys tend to get a slap on the wrist, while girls receive much harsher consequences. When you label girls’ clothing a distraction to boys and remove her, you prioritize his education over hers… and that’s unacceptable.

It’s heartening to see young girls in this country fighting the good fight and pressuring schools to change their ways. Some girls are protesting by wearing the article of clothing in question or, as in Charleston County School of the Arts in South Carolina, t-shirts with scarlet letters. Others, like high schooler Lauren Wiggins of Canada, have written open letters to their administrators. Some, such as Sofia Pierson of Washington State, have even successfully petitioned their schools to change their dress code and been part of the committee leading that change. Many female students have taken to social media to increase awareness. They often post pictures of themselves in the “inappropriate” outfits, and leave many of us wondering how they could possibly have been deemed offensive.

If you want to change a sexist dress code at your local school, I’ve included some tips geared to your particular role:

Advice for students:  Know your rights. The First Amendment guarantees your right to freedom of expression. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court found that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Research what other students have done (I think Pierson is a great example to follow). You can start a petition, stage a protest, or set up a meeting with the administration or school board. Don’t underestimate the power of social media to increase visibility. Many students have successfully used hashtags to like #IAmNotADistraction, #CropTopDay, and #FreeTheShoulder, to publicize their campaigns.

Special note for transgender students: If your school has a male and female-specific dress code, dressing in accordance with your gender identity is protected. I know this doesn’t help you if you’re nonbinary, but we hear you and will continue to push for gender-neutral policies.

Advice for parents: Know your rights. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees your right to raise your children as you choose. Support your daughter’s efforts and encourage her to engage in respectful dialogue because that’s how you get things done, and to quote FLOTUS, “When they go low, we go high.” You can accompany her to meetings as long as you yourself can keep your cool. If you hit a wall, you can always contact your state’s ACLU. Last year, the ACLU of Idaho intervened when they were alerted to discriminatory dress code standards for graduation. They sent a letter to all Idaho school districts with the following reminder: “Requiring boys and girls to dress differently or according to government-imposed gender norms is unlawful gender discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.”

Advice for teachers, administrators, and other school staff: Now is a great time to analyze your current dress code. Perhaps the most important revision is to make your school’s policy gender neutral. Some districts have opted to make dress codes purposefully vague (nixing measurements and two-finger rules). Others have gone simple. Portland’s new dress code requires all students to wear a top, bottom, and shoes and to cover certain body parts. If you’re looking for a model, I highly recommend the Oregon NOW Model Student Dress Code. It emphasizes that students be given as much choice as possible in their expression as well as the importance of staff training in the spirit of the dress code, enforcement and consequences, as well as consent and sexual harassment.

I have a daughter now, and it’s my hope that we as a collective community of parents and educators, can give her, and all girls (and all children for that matter) an educational environment in which they can freely express themselves and feel comfortable in their own bodies. After all, that’s kind of a prerequisite for learning! I hope my precious girl will grow up into a woman who, if told that her clothing was causing men to falter, wouldn’t be cowed. No, she would know ignorance on sight, fight back, and go confidently in the direction of her dreams.

Teaching the Truth About Thanksgiving

I grew up on Peanuts, and I’ve always been especially partial to their holiday movies like It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. One of the bonus episodes is called The Mayflower Voyages. It tells the story of the hardships the Pilgrims faced on their way to the new world and how Squanto and Chief Massasoit helped them survive, naturally featuring Snoopy and the gang. I always thought it was cute and informational. As an adult, I look at it with different eyes. What was once a charming cartoon about the first Thanksgiving became yet another example of the whitewashing of American history.

I always loved Thanksgiving as a student. I remember wearing my buckled pilgrim hat to school for kindergarten and cutting up the fruit for the first grade feast. When I became a teacher, I continued to celebrate Thanksgiving at school, but I always focused on the gratitude aspect. Even though I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, there was always something prickly about the historical part. One year, my grade level put on a Thanksgiving play. I definitely balked at the romanticized version of the story and silently objected to the “Little Pilgrims and Indians” song, but I have to admit that I didn’t do anything about it.

When I began to work more in the areas of diversity and equity, I came to understand that the colonial-centric narrative has suppressed the native one. History favors the aggressors, and we have the post-WWI advent of textbooks to thank for a widely propagated story that is at best propaganda and at worst an outright lie.

You need look no further than the events at Standing Rock to understand that the oppression of Native Americans continues to this day. We owe it to our children to speak truth about the experience of the people indigenous to this land. We must also recognize and honor that fact that many of our Native students view Thanksgiving as a painful reminder of the genocide of millions of their people. An accurate portrayal of the first Thanksgiving is a good start.

It begins with dispelling the following myths. I know there are other misconceptions about topics like what was actually eaten (hint: not turkey) and that the holiday was celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans every year afterward (it wasn’t). However, here I’ll focus on myths that are rooted in the oppression of native people.

Myth #1: The Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to take part in a feast celebrating the first harvest in 1621.

The English crops that first year were meager at best. It was actually the Wampanoags who brought most of the food. The two groups never sat together at a table in the spirit of cross-cultural exchange and mutual respect. In fact, the Pilgrims only invited members of the tribe in order for them to sign a treaty that granted the Pilgrims the land at Plymouth.

Myth #2: The Wampanoags were just being friendly.

The Wampanoags had had encounters with Europeans before, largely in the form of slave traders who raided their homes and villages. They fed the Pilgrims through the harsh winter and taught them how to grow food despite their prior experiences. The generosity of the native people, viewed through this lens, takes on even greater significance.

Myth #3: Squanto learned English to help the settlers.

Squanto was himself captured and enslaved. Upon his arrival in Europe, he learned English in order to escape.  

Myth #4: The Pilgrims and Indians were fast friends.

Pilgrim leaders didn’t mince words when it came to the Native Americans; they considered them “ignorant, heathen savages.” In return for their help, the Wampanoag tribe was nearly wiped out within the span of 2 years. Most died from diseases the Europeans brought with them, but many others were victims of violence.

Myth #5: Massachusetts Governor William Bradford declared the holiday as a day of thanksgiving in 1637.

The first official Thanksgiving was held as a celebration to mark the end of a bloody crusade against the Pequot Nation. On May 26th, the Pilgrim militia raided a Pequot village and massacred everyone in it – 700 men, women, and children. Preacher Increase Mather praised the “victory” of sending so many “heathen souls to hell.” In essence, our beloved holiday has its origins in bigotry, self-righteousness, and ethnic cleansing. Since 1970, many Native Americans have chosen to mark the fourth Thursday in November as a Day of Mourning, in remembrance of all that was lost.

I’m not saying you have to give up Thanksgiving (although Columbus Day is another story). We have some wonderful traditions that are worth keeping: breaking bread together, spending time with loved ones, and reflecting on all that for which we are grateful. But we’d be remiss if we continued to trot out the false Thanksgiving story that has become part of American folklore. We must also use the day to remember how much an entire people suffered, and to work toward justice in the world so that this never happens again. Because it is happening now, to the water protectors in North Dakota.

We can’t afford to shield our children from what may be for us an uncomfortable truth. If we are to be socially responsible, then it’s our duty as parents and teachers to educate ourselves and our children. We must raise the next generation to be empathetic champions of social justice. If we can do that, we will truly have something to be thankful for.

 

Campaigning for Better Books

The current political climate is proof positive that we need diverse books. The connection between the election and the need for better representation of diverse perspectives in literature might not be readily apparent. Let me see if I can connect some of the dots…

Donald Trump’s rhetoric has stoked fear and hatred and emboldened the alt-right to demonize the social justice movement. Many Americans listened, convinced of the assault on their values and way of life. They felt that they had to “take their country back” and elected Trump to do the job.

The lack of empathy for people of color, LGBTQ folks, and the Muslim community by nearly half this country is frankly shocking. Americans in rural areas voted overwhelmingly for Trump. My guess is that many of those people aren’t exposed to much diversity in their everyday lives. (That’s not to say that people in rural areas are backwards or close-minded; it’s rather a gentle suggestion that everyone’s world is made bigger through reading.)

Enter books. I’m going to borrow here from the work of Dr. Gordon Allport. Dr. Allport’s intergroup contact theory states that direct contact reduces prejudice. The extended theory holds that knowing a person of one’s own group has a close relationship with a member of an outgroup can lead to more positive attitudes about the outgroup.  In the absence of opportunity for direct contact, text provides people with imaginary contact that has similar results. Books provide windows into the lives and experiences of people who are different and can help nurture empathy. This is important for adults, but even more so for children because (forgive the cliché) the future rests in their hands.

I’ve written before about Marley Dias and her #100BlackGirlBooks project. I’m delighted to report that she’s not alone. I’d like to highlight three amazing campaigns for better books:

1)Let Books Be Books: This campaign is out of the UK, but it’s absolutely relevant here, as you’ll see from the list of publishers who have responded. It comes from the people who brought you Let Toys Be Toys, an effort to end the labeling of toys as “for girls” or “for boys.” They extended this to books, seeking to stop the marketing of children’s books along gender lines. They argue that these books (pink, sparkly, princess themes for girls and blue, action/adventure, pirate stories for boys) send kids limiting messages about gender, prevent them from exploring wide interests, and “provide fertile ground for bullying.” So far, publishers like Usborne, Scholastic, and Doring Kindersley (to name a few) have agreed not to release any new titles marketed specifically to one gender. Check it out at http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/letbooksbebooks/.

2)Step Up Scholastic: Organized by American Indians in Children’s Literature, the Ferguson Response Network, and Teaching for Change, Step Up Scholastic for ALL Children calls for “children, teachers, and parents, to write to Scholastic to demand they publish and distribute children’s books and catalogs that reflect and affirm the identity, history, and lives of ALL children in our schools.” Given that Scholastic has a major presence in elementary schools across the nation (who doesn’t remember bringing home Scholastic catalogs or attending one of their book fairs?), they have a real opportunity to be a leader here. And they are hearing us (and these kinds of grassroots efforts do work). Recently, they pulled the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington off the shelves because the public demanded its recall due to its irresponsible and dishonest depiction of slavery. To learn more, visit https://actionnetwork.org/letters/stepupscholastic-for-all-children.

3)We Need Diverse Books: WNDB started in response to an all-white, all-male panel of children’s book authors at a BookCon event in 2014. It’s “a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Their mission is to provide children with books featuring diverse characters so that all kids can see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. You can find more information at http://weneeddiversebooks.org/.

Please, if this resonates with you, do all you can to support these campaigns and those like them. Follow them. Like them on Facebook. Sign their petitions. Boycott publishers who market by gender. Critique your Scholastic catalog. Write a letter. Do whatever it takes to get diverse books into the hands of the people, especially the children. Never underestimate the power of a good book.

What I Learned in This Presidential Election

This isn't the post I thought I'd be writing today. I was ready and excited to compose a celebratory piece about the first woman president of the United States, the breaking of the ultimate glass ceiling. I couldn't wait to quote Michelle Obama in saying that, thanks to Hillary Clinton, my daughter would now take for granted that a woman could be president. Instead, I'm writing a much different essay about a much different America.

Yesterday, I learned the term "confirmation bias." It turns out that when you subscribe to Pantsuit Nation, unfollow your ultra conservative friends, and mute Tommy Lahren on Twitter, your country looks a lot more like the one you want it to be. I let myself become, if not cocky, at the least complacent. I lived in a bubble (what Michael Moore calls the liberal echo chamber), and I never saw this coming. Once the election had been called, Trump supporters came out of the woodwork all over my social media. And that's pretty much the story of this election.

A lot of people in this country are angry, and Donald Trump rode that wave of anger all the way to the White House. I understand that after eight years in one direction, the country often the swings the other way. I also get the desire to fight against elitism, the establishment, and the status quo. I can sympathize with people who feel disenfranchised by a system of two parties that left them behind. What I don't understand is supporting a candidate who spews racist, misogynistic, hateful rhetoric, mocks the disabled, war heroes, and Gold Star families, threatens to jail his opponent, and brags about sexual assault. Trump appeals to what is basest in human nature, and it grieves me to know that half this country either liked or looked past it.

I've learned a lot of important things about my country since Trump's victory was announced.

We do not live in a post-racial society. In case there was any lingering doubt, which there certainly wasn't for me. I knew systemic racism was endemic in the US, but Trump opened the door for the more blatant variety. Consider this: our president elect was endorsed by the KKK. He may have tried to distance himself from hate groups, but he's spouted the same garbage (birther movement, anyone?). The alt-right is convinced that "white identity" is somehow threatened by political correctness (actually, it's called respect) and the social justice movement, and they’ve been emboldened by Trump’s antics. We need to debunk the myth of reverse racism. It is the very essence of privilege to be able to cast your vote for a racist because you know he'll never come after you or your family.

Misogyny is alive and well. Hillary was held to a higher standard than Trump or any other male candidate for that matter. She was criticized for her hair, her clothes, her laugh, and her likeability. Hillary is flawed (who isn't?), but she is infinitely more qualified than Trump to hold the highest office in the land. White men showed up in droves for Trump, and their hatred for Hillary is visceral.  They claim to hate her for Benghazi and her email, but I can’t help thinking they just couldn't cope with the idea of a woman in the Oval Office. By choosing a man who has consistently objectified and denigrated women, they've given that behavior their tacit approval.

Rape culture is real. We just elected a man who boasted about grabbing women "by the pussy." It's disgusting and terrifying. Sexual assault victims are already reluctant to come forward for fear of retribution, not being believed, and lack of justice (look no further than Brock Turner). How will they feel now that the revelation of Trump's appalling behavior was utterly of no consequence in his quest for office? It sends a dangerous message to our young girls that their bodies are not their own, and to our boys that consent is optional.

I accept the results of this election, but I do not accept that this (hate, fear) is what the people want. This is not a mandate; this is a cry for help. You want change? Believe me, I hear you now. But your values aren’t under assault – I promise. Education is the order of the day. I think Van Jones got it absolutely right when he named this phenomenon "whitelash" against a black president and a society that is increasingly inclusive. People want to "take their country back," but what they don't realize is that ensuring equal rights for others doesn't take their own rights away.

My first reaction as I watched the swing states turn red was that I want nothing to do with this. I've since realized that I can't afford to do that. It's irresponsible. I owe it to my LGBTQ, Muslim, and Latinx friends, to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to the women and children of this country of whom my daughter is one, to keep on keeping on.

I held it together pretty well until my husband messaged me from Afghanistan to tell me he loved me and that it was going to be OK. Then I lost it. I have since picked myself up and dusted myself off. I'm here writing, and I will continue to write about diversity, equity, and the importance of ensuring the rights of the marginalized. I will work with educators on making our schools welcoming for all children. I will teach my daughter about consent. I am dismayed, shocked, and disappointed, but I'm not giving up. Buckle up, folks. We have a lot of work to do.

Volunteering in Latin America as a Person of Color

You look like Mulan.

Are you related to Jackie Chan?

Put your hair in a bun like they do in your country.

It never occurred to me that my race would come up as a volunteer at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos Honduras. I’m mixed race (Asian and white), but it honestly hasn’t been much of an issue in the United States. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve experienced a slew of microaggressions (mostly of the Where are you from? No, where are you froooooom? variety). Most upsetting were the occasions when people wanted me to explain why I didn’t speak Vietnamese. Because apparently bringing up someone’s painful family history is an acceptable consequence of satisfying one’s own curiosity. But I won’t pretend to have it as bad as many people of color in this country do; no, if people make assumptions about me, they tend to be positive.

So imagine my surprise upon arriving at El Rancho Santa Fe and immediately being labeled “la china.” And yes, every one of the above statements is a direct quote from a pequeño. I remember one night early on in my volunteer year, all the kids gathered in talleres (workshops) to watch the latest Karate Kid movie and every time the little Asian girl appeared, I would hear shouts of my name. It was crazy. I don’t even think I look particularly Asian (I know that most people who ask about my heritage just want to know why I’m brown). It wasn’t just on the Ranch. Walking around the streets of Tegucigalpa, people would frequently point at me and refer to me as “la chinita.” I kind of get it. Honduras has a surprising number of Chinese restaurants run by immigrants. Latin Americans are used to gringos looking a certain way (blond, blue-eyed). I suppose they were trying to make me fit into their schema somehow.

I did my best to clarify. My dad is Vietnamese, a refugee of the war. My mom is white. Both are American, as am I. This sometimes backfired. One night, I was eating with the boys in the hogar Arca de Noe and my ethnic background came up. 12 year-old Carlos insisted I must be Chinese. I explained that I was half-Vietnamese and that Vietnam is a country to the south of China. “Ohhhhh,” he replied. “I know. You’re a geisha.” Another volunteer tried to delicately explain what a geisha was, which only resulted in him requesting that I paint my face and entertain him. Fail.

Despite incidents like these, I did have my share of success. I worked in the hogar for the oldest girls, Hijas de Pilar. I developed incredibly close-knit relationships with my girls. Through those connections, I was able to share my background with an audience that cared about me and wanted to understand who I was. It was incredible to watch the girls jump to my defense. When a young boy asked me to say something in Chinese, María explained, “She’s from the States. She speaks English.” Sometimes they were a little too forceful. Upon hearing me called “chinita”, Sara exclaimed, “She’s Vietnamese, you moron!”

As a volunteer of color, you have to walk a fine line. You want to be respected and have your identity honored, but you have to remember you are in a foreign country with its own cultural norms. In Honduras, it’s quite common to use nicknames based on appearance. One of my girls was “Pecas” (“Freckles”) and a dark-skinned boy in the baby house was referred to as “Frijolito.” This might be considered offensive in the U.S., but we have to be careful that we’re not trying to bestow wisdom on the ignorant natives (hello, Savior Complex). I also recognize that it’s problematic to ask people of color to constantly educate. It’s never bothered me personally, but I think it’s inappropriate to make assumptions about whose job it is. I’m okay with taking on that role, especially with kids, because I know their questions come from a place of curiosity rather than malice.

Being a volunteer of color was definitely an interesting experience, but it didn’t define my year. What defined it was relationships. Relationships like the one I had and continue to have with Carlos. He still calls me Geisha, but it’s now a tongue-in-cheek term of endearment. He recently drew this picture of me as a new mother. He sees my race, but he sees me too. And that’s what’s important.

This testimonial was originally written for Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos USA as part of my work with their Diversity Task Force.

 

 

Source: http://nphusa.blogspot.com/2016/10/diversi...

Promoting Equality with Stonewall Democrats of Central Texas

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Stonewall Democrats of Central Texas Pride event in downtown Belton. Here is the full text of my speech:

I’m so excited to be here today among people who are so passionate about protecting equality. We have made great strides in this effort this year, but we have a long way to go. This election season, we will make decisions as a country that will decide whether those protections will be maintained and extended or repealed. As a teacher and mother, I always look at new policies through the lens of how they will affect our nation’s children. Unfortunately, our schools have become battlegrounds in the fight for equal rights. Our children deserve better. They deserve schools in which they are free from bullying, feel a sense of belonging, and have their many identities recognized and honored. We know that when students feel safe and nurtured at school, they improve not just their academic achievement but their confidence in themselves and their ability to work toward justice in the world.

I became a teacher because I loved school as a little girl. The classroom was a magical place for me, but I was well aware that this wasn’t the case for many students. In part, I became a teacher because I wanted all students to have the kind of experience that I did. As a teacher, I worked hard to develop a positive and loving classroom community and to be especially attentive to the needs of minority students. Diversity and equity have always been at the center of my professional work. When I was introduced to the Welcoming Schools approach in 2013, I found a new calling.

Welcoming Schools is a project of the Human Rights Campaign, and it’s a comprehensive approach to creating respectful and supportive schools. Welcoming Schools provides professional development and resources around 5 strands of emphasis: embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ inclusive schools, preventing bias-based bullying, creating gender expansive schools, and supporting transgender and non-binary students. Welcoming Schools is designed for use in elementary schools because we know that primary prevention efforts must begin early on in order eliminate bias before it manifests in aggressive behaviors. We know this work is essential because students who experience acceptance in school are more highly motivated, engaged in learning, and committed to school. But it’s not just academics: we are protecting the emotional and physical well-being of our children when we make schools places of inclusivity.

I became a facilitator for Welcoming Schools because I’ve seen firsthand how it works. As a teacher, I was always wary of yet another anti-bullying program. As far as I was concerned, no good curriculum came from a box. That’s why I liked this approach. It was about building classroom community, making structural changes, and using interpersonal relationships to educate…in addition to outright lessons. Let me give you an example. As a novice teacher, I would come unglued at the use of the word “gay” as a slur and immediately discipline the child. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I was missing an opportunity to educate. My last year in the classroom, a child said “that’s so gay” on the first day of school. I pulled her aside and asked her if she knew what “gay” meant. She said, “When a man and a man or a woman and a woman love each other.” “That’s right,” I replied. “Being gay is part of someone’s identity, and we don’t use that as an insult.” It was so much more effective. Through interactions like that throughout the year, along with read-alouds that built empathy, lessons that taught ally-behavior, and tiny shifts in my conduct as a teacher, my classroom became a place where a girl who had a toileting accident (the week her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer)was met with care and concern by her classmates instead of ridicule.

It’s not always easy to get this kind of work into schools. We made major headway earlier this year when the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education jointly released guidance and best practices that ensure the civil rights of transgender students in schools. Unfortunately, the Attorney General of this state has led an effort to undo this historic advancement. Texas, along with twelve other states, filed a motion in federal court to block enforcement of the federal guidelines, and sadly, a Wichita Falls court issued a temporary injunction. Fortunately, the ACLU of Texas has followed up with districts in this state to clarify what the order does and does not mean. In their letter, they explain that the order temporarily prevents the Obama administration from acting on the guidance. It does NOT mean that districts may discriminate against transgender students with impunity. In fact, under Title IX, districts that do so may face legal liability. Furthermore, nothing in the order prevents schools from embracing inclusiveness and implementing policies that support transgender students.

And it doesn’t prevent YOU either. As a parent, grandparent, concerned citizen, LGBTQ equality advocate, or ally, there are many steps you can take to ensure the best for our children. Encourage your local library to stock books that are LGBTQ inclusive. Make sure your school’s PTA is welcoming to all families. See to it that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are specifically enumerated in harassment and bullying policies. Get a GSA started at your child’s school. Let’s work together to form a PFLAG chapter in Belton or Temple. Petition your child’s individual school or the district at large via the school board to provide much needed professional development to teachers.

Schools play an incredibly important role in the work we are all doing to protect equality. In many ways, schools are on the front lines. But our children deserve to be so much more than pawns in a political game. They need schools that are safe, nurturing places in which they are free to be their authentic selves...and together we can make that happen. Thank you.

 

Boys Don't Cry (But They Should)

You’ve probably seen the viral video - the one with the little boy who is crying and his inspirational karate teacher? (Check it out: https://youtu.be/uBDAPJpwILw). In the clip, student Bruce is trying to break a block with his hand. In his frustration, he begins to cry. His instructor, Jason Wilson, explains to him that crying is nothing to be ashamed of. “We cry as men,” he tells him. “I don’t mind if you cry. I cry too.” He lets Bruce know that it’s okay to express his emotions, and that’s exactly what Bruce needs to hear. Is it any coincidence that Bruce is then able to break the block successfully? I don’t think so.

This video gets so much right. We live in a society that values toughness in men. There’s nothing wrong with a little grit (far from it), but we do our boys a disservice when we promote hyper-masculinity as the norm. Stifling emotions can lead to anger and result in destructive behavior (there’s a reason boys are at a higher risk for suicide as well as more likely to be victims and perpetrators of violence). Research shows that boys who don’t learn to deal with their feelings are at risk of falling behind in school. It’s not only academics; if they don’t learn to be emotionally honest, they won’t be effective communicators, which can hamper their ability to succeed societally as young men. When we limit what it means to be a boy (you know, that rough and tumble, snakes and snails mentality), we limit the unique potential of individual children.

So what’s to be done? Here are some strategies for your consideration:

1)Encourage a growth mindset.

This is a good strategy for all children, but I’ll focus on boys here. Many boys are conditioned to fear failure and are shunned if they express disappointment in an emotional way. That’s why some are prone to angry outbursts. A growth mindset helps children view failure as part of the learning process, making them more resilient in the future. For more information about Carol Dweck’s pioneering work, visit www.mindsetonline.com.

2)Help boys cultivate a full repertoire of emotions.

If we want boys to develop an extensive emotional vocabulary, we have to talk about it. It’s important to label feelings (their own as well as those of characters in books and on tv). Make sure home and school are places where they feel safe to explore their emotions. Give them permission to cry. In initiating conversations about feelings, use movies like Inside Out or pretty much any superhero flick (think about it: most of them are as vulnerable as they are invincible) as an entry point.

3)Provide comfort when needed.

I understand that inclination to tell kids to “suck it up.” When my daughter falls down, I encourage her to “throw some dirt on it” and get back up. But when I see that she’s really upset, I pick her up. We need to do the same for boys. If they’re hurt or frustrated, console them, give them hugs, and reassure them that it is healthy and even brave to express one’s emotions.

4)Let boys play with a variety of toys.

First of all, props to Target and other retailers who have done away with categorizing toys by gender. I really don’t understand the big deal with letting boys play with dolls. Are we so afraid they’ll become (gasp) great fathers?? Playing with toy mops and brooms and kid kitchens will prepare them for taking care of a household and being a good partner. While over-exposure to princess culture can have a negative impact on girls, it can help boys become more well-rounded (just make sure they see more than the “damsel in distress” narrative to combat stereotypes about women as well). Dress up should be free of restrictions around gender. In a recent episode of Sesame Street, the characters learn that boys can play tea party and ballet and girls can be dentists and drummers. If Elmo knows it, it should be just as easy for the rest of us to wrap our heads around.

5)Introduce activities like art, music, and drama.

Boys who participate in these types of extracurricular activities tend to do better in school. However, many are reluctant to try them for fear of teasing. Boys who participate in the arts run the risk of being labeled “gay” or “sissies.” In fact, children fear anti-gay teasing more than any other kind. We need to take away the stigma around fine arts (as well as educate our kids about what gay means and why it’s offensive to use the word as an insult). Through examples, inclusive environments, and intolerance of bullying, we can help erase the ignorant notion that somehow these activities aren’t masculine.

6)Read books that challenge gender norms.

There’s so much good stuff out there! In The Bat Boy and His Violin by Gavin Curtis, young Reginald finds a way to share his love of music in the dugout. Sandra Bradley’s Henry Holton Takes the Ice features a boy from a hockey-obsessed family who discovers he loves ice dancing. Jacob’s New Dress, by Sandra and Ian Hoffman, is about a little boy who loves to play dress up. Perhaps my favorite is the old classic The Story of Ferdinand (also a cartoon), which is about a young bull who refuses to fight the matador because he’d rather sit under his favorite acorn tree and smell the flowers. All of these are excellent examples of going against the grain.

7)Watch your language.

If you haven’t already done so, watch this video of 48 Things Men Hear In a Lifetime (That Are Bad for Everyone): https://youtu.be/jk8YmtEJvDc. If you’ve ever uttered any of these phrases, stop now. Constant messages of shame for showing emotion can do significant psychological damage. When you hear this kind of talk, especially around young boys, call it out. Follow up with the child and reinforce that there are many ways of being a man. All being a “real man” should mean is that you identify as such.

By raising our girls to be gutsy and our boys to be sensitive, we help all children develop a broader definition of gender. It’s powerful for every child, but especially those who are gender creative or gender expansive. When kids have a bigger picture of gender and aren’t constrained by (let’s be honest) arbitrary norms, they are free to embrace and express exactly who they are…and they’re more likely to be accepting and loving of others who do the same.

 

Raising Gutsy Girls

Last month, I took my daughter to the The Thinkery, Austin’s amazing children’s museum. She was toddling around in the area for kids under 3 and scaling a mountain of giant beanbags when she knocked over a younger child. I apologized profusely, but the child’s mom set him on his feet and announced, “It’s okay. He’s a boy.” I was taken aback. Why should the child’s gender have anything to do with how quickly he recovered from a fall? Would it be different if it had been my little girl who took the tumble? Would other parents look at me askance if I didn’t immediately scoop her up and comfort her? As a mother to a young daughter and a lifelong feminist, the interaction really got me thinking about societal expectations for how we raise girls and the implications that has for their lives.

Anecdotes like this one aren’t the only evidence. A study out of the University of Iowa found that parents were four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful. The problem with that is it discourages girls from engaging in physical challenges that will help them develop important new skills. It also sends them the message that they are more fragile than boys, resulting in the risk-averse trait we so often see in young girls. When they become young women, this behavior can manifest itself in demurring from leadership positions and submissiveness in relationships. I find these outcomes unacceptable. Here are some strategies for raising “gutsy” girls:

1)Encourage risk-taking: Embolden young girls to take on sports, outdoor adventures, and other physical activities often relegated to the dominion of boys. Teach them how to light a fire, climb a tree, or use a pocketknife…all of which will build confidence and responsibility. It always drove me nuts that the Boy Scouts were learning super cool survival skills while we Girl Scouts were stuck making gingerbread houses and slinging cookies. Of course, I’m promoting adventurousness as opposed recklessness (after all, there’s a reason it’s so expensive to insure teenage boy drivers). Plenty of supervision and specific instructions are the order of the day. That being said…

2)Let them fail: If you haven’t read Carol Dweck’s Mindset, you’re going to want to check it out. In her research, she determined that there are two ways in which individuals view intelligence. Those with a fixed mindset see it as an inborn trait, while those with a growth mindset believe it can be developed over time. Children who develop a growth mindset work hard, value effort, bounce back from setbacks, and tackle challenges with aplomb. They recognize that failure is part of learning. While this is important for all children, it is especially vital for girls who have been conditioned to fear to develop resilience. For my one year-old daughter, this means that I let her climb on play structures for older kids, figure out how to navigate through small spaces on her own, and fall…a lot (of course I pick her up if she’s really hurt, but she gets big kudos for picking herself up and dusting herself off.)

3)Model: Young girls need to see the important women in their lives acting boldly and living fearlessly (I’m looking at you moms, caregivers, and teachers). I’m working hard myself to walk the talk. I used to be quite squeamish around all things creepy-crawly. I wanted to show my students that there’s nothing cute about squealing over a bug, so I took a life science class for educators one summer. I cared for a crayfish who would become a class pet, dissected a clam, and held a moon snail at the beach. Squeamishness: cured. When I had my students dissect a squid that year, I took a cue from a wonderful teacher friend of mine and instructed them to say “interesting” any time they felt tempted to say “gross.” In the adventure department…well, I’ve always been more of an “indoorsy” person. As a volunteer in Honduras, I challenged myself by hiking under a waterfall, jumping out of a tree into a cove, and taking care of a tarantula when a visitor saw it and exclaimed, “We need a man!” I even hiked Ramsey Canyon with my daughter in a Baby Bjorn. I’ve promised myself to immerse myself yet again in my sport of choice, which requires great strength, flexibility, and feats of derring-do (and if you want to talk about pole dance and feminism, I’d love to bend your ear for a tic.)

4)Books: Caroline Paul, original Gutsy Girl and inspiration/namesake for this post, was one of the first female firefighters on the San Francisco force. She’s authored an amazing book entitled The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. It’s part memoir of her own escapades from climbing Denali to thermal flying and part instruction book, peppered with delightful illustrations identifying animal tracks and teaching knot-tying to name a few. I highly recommend it for tweens. (Christmas present for nieces? Check.) For younger readers, I like Allie’s Basketball Dream by Barbara E. Barber, Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, JoJo’s Flying Sidekick by Brian Pinkney, and Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History…and Our Future! by Kate Schatz.

5)Role models: Lately I’ve been binging The History Channel’s Vikings on Hulu, and my favorite character is Lagertha. She’s a badass shield maiden who does what she wants…and she’s based on a real person! I’m not suggesting that you sit your child down for a viewing of gratuitous violence and sex scenes; I merely want to point out that models of heroic women are present in history and popular culture if we know where to look. Need a refresher? Follow Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and A Mighty Girl on Facebook. They’ve recently highlighted figures in women’s history like Jane Goodall and Bessie Coleman, as well as modern-day heroes like National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, Japanese mountain climber Junko Tabei and young inventor Olivia Hallsey. In the fictional realm, we have characters like Katniss, Hermione, and my favorite…Buffy!

6)Language: We need to be careful not to overuse the language of fear with our girls. Do you say “that’s too scary for you” or “aren’t you afraid?” That kind of talk promotes an expectation of fear. Do you use “like a girl” to mean something derogatory (or do you let it slide when you hear other children say it)? For a new take on that phrase, take a look at this powerful ad from Always: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs. I think it’s especially important in classrooms and in homes where girls have brothers that adults are careful to speak to children the same way regardless of gender. Think about it: do you ever hear someone tell a girl, “You’re the woman of the house now. Take care of your mother”? At the tumbling gym, a little boy told me that he would be my daughter’s protector. While I thought it was a sweet gesture, I’m trying to be very intentional in the language I use with her so she knows that being a girl doesn’t equate to needing protection. I’ve had to catch myself from saying “that’s not for little girls” when my daughter goes after something she can’t have. If I say it to her in Spanish, it’s the difference of one letter to say “children” instead. A small change with potentially great benefits.

I’ll never forget the day in my twenties when I discovered that my mother had a paralyzing fear of escalators. Every time she stepped on one when my sister and I were young, she swallowed that fear in the hopes of not passing it on to us. It’s in that spirit that I write this. Even if we were fearful, timid, and risk averse as young girls, it doesn’t mean our daughters, granddaughters, and nieces have to be. So I’d like to propose a toast to Generation Gutsy Girl: may your fires burn brightly, may your pocketknives be sharp, and may your dreams be limitless.

 

Prayer in Schools: Rights, Restrictions, and Me on the Radio

Whenever I listen to the radio, I usually turn it off or change the station when anyone starts talking (I just want to enjoy the music). However, last week, I heard an interesting story. A mom called in because her son’s coach (who is an atheist) wouldn’t let him and his teammates pray before and after their football games. Now this is Texas, so football and religion freedom are a big deal. The deejays invited listeners to call in, and as an agnostic* former public school teacher, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to educate on civil liberties (and if you know me, you know I do so love to chime in). You can hear my thoughts at 1:51 via this link: http://www.mix947.com/media/audio.

The conversation quickly devolves into typical morning show fodder, but it’s such an important topic that I wanted to participate. I was surprised that the deejays and some of the other callers really didn’t seem to know the laws governing prayer in schools, and I tried to address that in a short amount of time. Reflecting later, I realized that if those individuals are representative of the population as a whole, then that calls for the dissemination of information. So that’s what I’ll try to do here.

What follows is my understanding of the law regarding prayer in schools. If you’d like more information about religion in public education (or you just want to fact-check me), visit https://www.aclu.org/issues/religious-liberty/religion-and-public-schools.

Rights:

·         Religious liberty protects the rights of students to pray at school individually or in groups.

·         Additionally, students have the right to express religious viewpoints, form religious clubs, and read religious literature in school.

Restrictions:

·         Schools are to be religiously neutral environments, so school-sponsored prayer (at award ceremonies, sporting events, graduations, etc.) is prohibited.

·         School officials (teachers, administrators, coaches, etc.) are not allowed to lead prayer.

·         Students may pray so long as it does not cause a distraction or interfere with the education of others.

·         Minority-faith students and non-believers shall not be subjected to pressure to conform to the majority’s religious beliefs.

Prayer in schools is such a hot button issue, but I think it’s due to misinformation. If you look at the protections and prohibitions, they’re actually quite reasonable and respectful. It makes sense. We send our children to school to be educated not indoctrinated. It’s my right as a parent to determine if and how I want religion (as well as which religion that is) to be a part of my daughter’s upbringing. The government (via public schools) doesn’t get to make that decision for me.

So there you have it: children can pray in schools. The Bill of Rights guarantees that. Just remember that the right to believe or not applies to every individual in these United States. Your beliefs and your right to them do not usurp those of others. That’s why the separation of church and state is so foundational to this country. We cannot hope to protect the religious freedom of all if our government promotes only one.

 

*I identified as atheist on air because I didn’t want to spend my precious seconds explaining the difference, but I will here. In a nutshell, atheists do not believe that God exists. Agnostics, on the other hand, believe that the existence of God is unknowable.