Women’s History Month: 2015

1 Mar

Womens-History-Month-300x153Today marks the 29th year we celebrate National Women’s History Month. My dear friend Molly Murphy MacGregor led the pioneering effort to recognize how women have impacted, shaped, and influenced our world. Molly — always very humble — is the co-founder of the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) and a key force behind why we now celebrate Women’s History Month in the United States. The not insignificant move forward started in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the Week of March 8th 1980 as National Women’s History Week.  Finally in 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity.

Sadly, we still see enormous resistance to treating women equally and equitably. The Republican controlled house sent a very clear message when they voted no on the equal pay act. This past February we saw Representative LaVar Christensen and Representative Brian Greene trying to defend rape, a very sad echo of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock talking about “legitimate rape.” Yes, we continue to witness myriad vicious attacks on women and their bodies.  John Boehner and his ilk seem to want property rights to every vagina in America.

Over the course of the month we will look at women pioneers and women who fought for civil rights, while we also examine the continued hypocrisy and double standards that exist, as we witness right wing extremist policing women’s eggs.  Reproductive health is debated by men (Catholic Bishops? Darrel Issa‘s all-male birth control panel?) with paternalistic moralizing and no reference to women at all. Sadly, it is not just men that are trying to control women’s bodies, but a faction of self-loathing women — who have internalized male oppression — are also hurting women. Are you listening Susan G. Komen Foundation? Helping everyone learn Women’s History is the best preventative for creating any new Phyllis Schlaflys or Karen Handels.

We have much to celebrate and much work yet to accomplish.

Black History Month 2015: The Staple Singers

13 Feb

TheSlowDrag-TheStapleSingersToday we honor and celebrate a talented family whose distinctive approach to “Message Music” helped form the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. The Staple Singers comprised father, singer, and guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughters, lead vocalist Mavis Staples and vocalist Cleotha Staples, with siblings Pervis and Yvonne joining as vocalists off and on through the years. Blending southern blues, traditional gospel, early rock era R&B, and protest folk, their powerful harmonies drove a message of tolerance, diversity, strength, and progress.

Roebuck Staples was born the youngest son of sharecroppers in Mississippi. He learned to play guitar listening to the blues greats in the region and played in a few joints in his youth. In the early 30s he moved to Chicago to seek out a better life for his family, gradually moving them all north. His interest in music continued moving into gospel singing. Soon the whole family was joining in. Their unique, instinctive harmonies, supported by Pops’ eerie, tremolo-drenched guitar work, gave them a sound that stood out even in Chicago’s talented gospel community.

The original core quartet (all but Yvonne) began playing gigs at a number of local churches and eventually landed a recording contract. For a while Pops continued to work a regular job, but as the Staple Singers began to tour he eventually committed to music full time. The group found themselves in an interesting musical position. Pops wanted to avoid pop love songs and dark blues themes, focusing on joy, hope, and inspiration. Unlike other Gospel acts, they incorporated some original material and a variety of songs that  fit their message. Unlike acts like local friend Sam Cooke, who fully embraced pop and soul and made successful career transitions, their adherence to their own vision kept their audience somewhat small.

Touring mostly the south in the 1950s was a tricky business for an African-American family. They had difficulty finding food and lodging in many places, relying heavily on an unofficial network of homes and boardinghouses that supported the Gospel community. Driving a large Cadillac through the rural south brought them plenty of grief from local law enforcement including a brief stint in jail because of the significant amount of money — their legitimate wages — found in the trunk of their car. These experiences honed their desire to empower the black community and to provide messages of hope and strength.

They became enmeshed in the growing civil rights movement, often performing in locations where black activists were speaking. Their Message Music merged perfectly with the push for equality and their personal experiences informed performances that were as passionate as the preachers’ and activists’ speeches. Pops became close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Staples often adjusted their touring schedule to accompany his appearances.

While becoming a critical part of the movement, they began breaking down musical barriers as well. Already deeply connected to the soul and R&B communities — they were friends with singers Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and many others as well as their families — their sound began expanding. They performed at the Newport Folk Festival, launching a long career of participating in folk events. They befriended Bob Dylan and the Band and their music informed the Rolling Stones’ early hit The Last Time. Pops’ guitar work was so famous that producer Jerry Wexler insisted that Joe South emulate it for his great guitar intro to Aretha Franklin’s smash Chain of Fools.

The Staples were famous and successful but limited in audience. Labels weren’t sure how to promote them — not just gospel but not fully folk, pop, or soul. They finally found their breakthrough, signing with Stax and recording at the famous Muscle Shoals studio. The blend of their Message Music with the earthy sound of the Shoals musicians — a bunch of young white men inspired by the rich musical culture around them — and caught fire. They began a string of hits that included the classic Respect Yourself and their signature song, the #1 pop and R&B hit I’ll Take You There. For awhile the Staple Singers were musical royalty, staying true to their Message Music and pushing for continued progress in civil rights.

By the late 70s, changing musical tastes and a long career of  performing resulted in a gradual reduction in Staples’ material. Pops was in his 60s and Mavis became interested in a solo career. They re-emerged in the 90s, with musicians like Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt championing their pivotal roles in music and activism. Pops recorded two acclaimed solo albums, winning a Grammy award in his 80s. He died in 2000 at the age of 85.

Mavis continues to record and perform today. She has grown comfortable with her role as a musical elder with an important message. Given the horrible racism that has surfaced in recent years, she wonders what happened to all the work the Staples and their contemporaries did. Activism is as important now as then, she observes.

It makes me think of my father’s song Why Am I Treated So Bad? I’m sixtey-seven years old and I was here the first time around and now I’m still here and it’s still not fixed. I’m here to let you all know that I’m still not pleased. … It’s the 21st Century. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We don’t teach enough black history in the schools. But I’m the history — I’ll be the history. The kids need to know.

Fifty years into an impressive career, the Staples family still has something to say. And it certainly still matters.

Black History Month 2015: Wendell Scott

9 Feb

WendellScottToday I would like to honor and pay tribute to Wendell Scott. Scott was the first full-tim African American race car driver in NASCAR and remained the only black race car driver for most of his career. No shock that Scott met with racial prejudice and problems with top-level NASCAR officials. Here are just two examples of the uphill battle of racism Scott would have to fight:

The next day, however, brought the first of many episodes of discrimination that would plague his racing career. Scott repaired his car and towed it to a NASCAR-sanctioned race in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But the NASCAR officials refused to let him compete. Black drivers were not allowed, they said. As he drove home, Scott recalled, “I had tears in my eyes.” A few days later he went to another NASCAR event in High Point, North Carolina. Again, Scott said, the officials “just flat told me I couldn’t race.”

Scott’s determination and internal fortitude finally won out and earned him the historic position of being the first black man to be a NASCAR driver. With nearly 500 premiere league starts, he ranks in the Top 40 drivers of all time. Bravo, to Scott’s courage and strength. NASCAR remains today, 2015 a very white and very heteronormative institution.  If you are Black, or Queer, NASCAR is not a likely place one feels safe.

Fortunately, NASCAR has finally seen fit to celebrate this talented pioneer. Last week, Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, its first African-American honoree. Accepting the award on his late father’s behalf, his son Franklin observed

The legacy of Wendell Scott depicts him as one of the great vanguards of the sport of NASCAR racing. Daddy was a man of great honor. He didn’t let his circumstances define who he was.

Thank you to my brother-in-law Scott for helping to inspire this story and pointing me to Wendell Scott.

Black History Month 2015: Difficult Reflections

1 Feb

Black History MonthThis is now the fifth year that Social Justice For All (SJFA) has celebrated Black History Month. The past year has proven unequivocally why we still need Black History Month. I can only hope all of us in the United States are doing some reflection around our own racism and encouraging conversations around issues of racial disparities and systems of inequities and oppression. I also hope as we have these courageous conversations we have a better understanding of what racism is.

In the wake of Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and all of the other cities where black voices are being silenced, we have an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations around race and racism.  I suspect many of us are still feeling the sting of the Supreme Court’s decision to dismantle the Voting Rights Act; continuing their racist agenda, they then upheld voter suppression in Texas.

Equity and Equality are still just a dream when 13% of the people in our country identify as African American (we know this percentage is not accurate because of the many barriers that prevent some African Americans from filling out the census) and far fewer than this are represented in most walks of life. Sadly, the places where African Americans are over-represented include poverty, dropout rates, and incarceration, further evidence that institutionalized oppression still plays a major role in how things work in America. In states like Alabama, blacks that are or were incarcerated lose their right to vote for the rest of their lives – so much for the 14th Amendment.

I would love to see a point in history when we don’t need Black History, Women’s History, or LGBT History Months. I don’t see that happening until we have a level playing field, which would require eradicating racism, misogyny, and homophobia. This also requires that we see accurate representation in history books of Blacks, Women, and LGBT folk. I can only hope that all of these targeted populations can find ways to build community and work together around issues of equity and equality.

Let’s kick off Black History Month in this historic year with an eye to so many wonderful accomplishments. Let inspiration drive hope to fuel more success and let each of us step back and reflect where we might be implicated in colluding with systems of oppression and racism.

 

Call The Midwife

23 Jan

Call the MidwifeAbout six months ago, my dear friend Janet Putnam recommended the BBC series Call The Midwife, explaining that I would love it because it demonstrates really good social work.  I must confess that I was rather hesitant and was not sure I would share her interest in the show, given it is about a bunch of nuns.  My interest was piqued some because it is also about the beginning of National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, this past Christmas, my friend Brad sent me the first season of Call the Midwife. It seemed I would have to cave in and watch at least one episode. Wow! My husband and I have officially become addicted to this brilliant series.  The story was taken from midwife Jennifer Worth’s memoirs and is based on her experiences working in London’s East End in the late 1950s. It truly is a documentary of the start of NHS and of splendid social work — walking alongside people, being present on their journey and offering help.  I love that the real progressive voices often come not from the “modern” nurses; instead the Anglican nuns provide  the progressive narrative. The stellar cast work together in such harmony, they compel one to continue watching.  A social justice icon, Vanessa Redgrave, narrates our story, as the mature Nurse Jenny Lee. Pam Ferris, from Rosemary and Thyme, is the feisty, stern, yet lovable Sister Evangelina.  The amazingly talented and funny Miranda Hart stars as the exceedingly endearing Chummy.  Judy Parfitt, many of you will remember from her Oscar worthy performance in Delores Claiborne as Vera Donovan, plays the lovely and absent-minded Sister Monica Joan.

Tea(r) Towel

Tea(r) Towel

This ensemble cast provide not only a narration of birth, they also give us a didactic story of health care, social work, feminism, and social justice. Each episode is like a gift — a remarkable story that is utterly compelling. I must confess that I cry so much I have to have a tear towel at my side. If you have not had a chance to watch this amazing series, I encourage you to watch at least one episode, for I know you will become addicted to this very sweet and sad story of humanity from birth to death.

Happy Birthday, Betty White

17 Jan

Betty_White_2010Happy Birthday, Betty White.  White, a National Treasure, turns 93 today.  In addition to her animal rights activism and her long successful career in film and television, she is also a proponent of equal rights for the LGBT community. White  was quoted: “Gays love old ladies. I don’t care who anybody sleeps with. If a couple has been together all that time—and there are gay relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual ones—I think it’s fine if they want to get married.”  Her character of Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker, on Mary Tyler Moore was one of my favorite roles of White’s.  And what gay man did not watch White in the Golden Girls? Currently, I am enjoying watching Betty White as Elke Ostrovsky on Hot In Cleveland.

Of course, I love White’s fight against misogyny with her comment:

Why do people say “Grow some balls?”  Balls are weak and sensitive!  If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things take a pounding!

Brava, to our much beloved Betty White. Of course, for me she will always be the ever charming Sue Ann Nivens. Here is our Sue Ann as a “Tawny Beast.”

Kúkátónón: Social Justice and Dance

7 Jan

Kukatonon 2015 Gala Save the Date 11_19.inddOver the past few years, one of my favorite regular events has been the Annual Gala of the Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe. This amazing organization, founded by the amazing Rolia Manyongai-Jones, blends heritage, social justice, health, and teamwork into a dazzling tapestry of motion and music.

The mission of Kúkátónón is “to inspire confidence, commitment and vitality among the children in the dance troupe; and to broaden awareness of African and African American cultural traditions throughout Oregon.” To these ends, the Troupe teaches children traditional dance and music, engaging them in cultural awareness. An awareness much appreciated by alumni and now present board member Lionel Clegg who reflects upon his time in the troupe: “there were no groups out there that celebrated African culture or taught us about our heritage.”

Currently, all of the troupe members are African, African American or multi-racial; all the dancers and most of the drummers are girls. Approximately 80% of the members are from low-income families. Kúkátónón is dedicated to addressing the needs of black youth in Portland and altering racial disparities through a holistic approach: dance, drumming, culture, art, and identity.

As an exciting, dynamic program, Kúkátónón also meets many needs of its participants. Afterschool programs are essential to keep kids safe, engage children in enriching activities, and give peace of mind to parents during the out-of-school hours. They also help improve students’ academic performance, school attendance, behavior and health, and support working families. More than fifteen years of research points to how youth who participate in after-school – and summer – programs demonstrate increased academic achievement, better school attendance, and have fewer disciplinary actions such as suspension and expulsion. Programs such as Kúkátónón also address improved social and emotional outcomes such as decreased depression and anxiety, reduction in risky behaviors, and improved health and wellness. I must confess, I so appreciate looking at Kúkátónón as a health equity venture. My hope is we will open larger discussions around racial disparities and health inequities and how we as a community can do more to support our youth of color.

Sixty-one percent of African-American parents say they would enroll their children if programs were available compared to 38 %of parents in general; 28% of African-American children have no adult supervision after school and are responsible for taking care of themselves during the afternoon hours. Kúkátónón fulfills a critical social justice mission in our community by helping meet these needs.

The need is especially acute for African-American girls. As noted in the Unlocking Opportunity Report,  these girls face significant barriers to educational attainment, including lack of access to quality educational opportunities; pervasive racial and gender stereotypes that affect the decision-making of school leaders and educators; discriminatory discipline practices that disproportionately push them out of school; high rates of exposure to sexual harassment and violence; juvenile justice system involvement; and lack of support for those who are pregnant or parenting while still in school. These systemic educational barriers and challenges produce life-long economic obstacles, such as limited job opportunities, lower earnings, and disproportionate representation among those in poverty. As a result, African American girls are uniquely vulnerable to a “School-to-Poverty Pathway.” By building skills in teamwork and collaboration while building self-esteem and confidence, Kúkátónón gives its students a stronger chance to overcome these obstacles.

The benefits of arts learning are both immediate and long-term. Students are engaged, animated, thinking and working together as they learn about art through art. Young people who are highly engaged in the arts are also more likely to thrive later on, earn higher grades, graduate from high school and college, volunteer, vote, and participate in politics at school and in their community. An investment in Kúkátónón’s arts learning program is an investment in the health and well-being of our children, and a unique cultural resource.

How can we help? I’m so glad you asked. It is really quite easy. Click here to donate and to look at Kúkátónón’s website. While you’re there,  don’t forget to buy your tickets now for this year’s Gala on Saturday, February 14.

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