‘No Easy Fix’ When It Comes To Tackling Unconscious Bias

Story By Shari Nacson
Photos by Gabe Schaffer

“The work is amazing,” said Margaret Mitchell, CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland. “It lives, both on the individual level and also on the institutional level. Both things have to be at play.”

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To date, over 1200 people have participated in Cleveland’s It’s Time to Talk events. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

The “it” under discussion is the work of helping people discover their own unconscious bias. According to Mitchell, the work of eliminating racism begins with helping people look more closely at themselves. It is only through this introspection that systemic racism can slowly and thoroughly be dismantled, she said.

To tackle this ambitious goal, Cleveland’s YWCA has spent the past four years teaching people how to have daring conversations. The first It’s Time to Talk event was in 2015. To date, over 1200 people have participated.

The model was originally piloted in Minneapolis. Heather Steranka-Petit, Manager of the YWCA’s Learning Programs, has managed It’s Time to Talk for the YWCA Greater Cleveland since 2016. Steranka-Petit likes the model because it provides structure and guidance for conversations that can feel intimidating or highly charged. There is a strong focus on creating a safe space. “All YWCAs have programming to eliminate racism,” she says. That is the organization’s mission.

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New facilitators come from a range of backgrounds and complete 5 hours of training. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

One of the unique things about It’s Time to Talk is that participants are invited to help facilitate the very workshops for which they have registered. A visit to the registration page includes options to register and to become a facilitator.

Hosting an event that relies upon a team of volunteer facilitators surfacing during the registration period would appear to be challenging. This doesn’t faze Steranka-Petit, who relies on a team she has not yet met. “People want to make a difference in the world,” she says. “They all want to make some kind of change.”

New facilitators come from a range of backgrounds and complete 5 hours of training. Veteran facilitators, like Alissa Vaughn, come back year after year, many sitting in on training as a way to mentor newbies. When asked what drew her to It’s Time to Talk, Vaughn says, “I participate in programs that have real, strong resonance and meaning for me. This program has the most power to impact and galvanize people.”

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The program itself involves a morning keynote followed by two experiences: Circle Conversations and World Café. Circle Conversations are the most intense part of the day. Participants agree to ground rules and learn about the talking piece, which helps ensure that only one person speaks at a time. Facilitators encourage participants to use “I statements” and to “talk from the heart.” The initial prompt asks each participant to talk about the first time they realized that racism existed. Through mindful listening and turn-taking, hearts and minds begin to open. Prompts continue, guided by the facilitator’s sense of the group, covering personal experiences of discrimination, workplace readiness to tackle issues of unconscious bias, and racism’s impact on the greater community.

David Robinson is a seasoned facilitator. He explains that the program is designed with “proper prompts that elicit meaningful response.” The carefully chosen prompts make the experience particularly personal, so people begin thinking about how they can make an impact at work, at home, and in their neighborhoods.

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Facilitators encourage participants to use “I statements” and to “talk from the heart.” Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Kelly Schmidt, a social work graduate student, is a new facilitator. A week before training, Kelly explained why she volunteered, saying, “The idea of racial equity was a draw for me. I like the idea of being in a facilitator role, to get training. I think it will be good for me as a social worker. I’m excited to learn.”

Schmidt talked about the delicate work of being a white woman who wants to acknowledge the role of privilege — and wants to help other people and organizations do the same.

***

With a seasoned emphasis on best practice, the YWCA training provides an opportunity for new facilitators to simulate the Circle Conversation activity and role play. A few days after she has been trained, Schmidt says, “I feel prepared to be in conversations that I normally wouldn’t be in or might not be comfortable with.” Reflecting on the training, Schmidt says she learned the most from other people’s stories — which seems like a parallel process to what will come two weeks later.

***

When the day of the event finally arrives, it is a rainy and foggy Friday morning in Cleveland. The city has forgone snow for mud, but people are happy to be sans hat and gloves. The morning’s keynote by the authors of Convicted centers on a white former police officer owning his bias and abuse of power while sharing the stage — and a mentoring friendship — with one of the black men who was sentenced based on false evidence the officer provided. The authenticity and inspiration are potent as the pair talk with kindness and humor about true reparation (which requires three elements — an apology, forgiveness, and working together for the greater good).  

Soon the audience is released to go to their Circle Conversation rooms. Each name tag includes a facilitator’s name at the bottom, so participants know who they belong with. Facilitators stand in the lobby with signs to help shepherd their groups to the right places.

Schmidt’s Circle Conversation group seems small. Yet the experience is powerful, according to Martin Williams, Director of Community Mental Health at Frontline Services. This is Williams’ first time attending the event. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said.

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The YWCA hopes to inspire people to bring the model back to their workplaces. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

It’s an interesting role reversal when clinical leaders are participants in a facilitated group. Williams liked it. “Being in a circle like that creates the opportunity to eliminate any barriers,” he says. “People could be open and honest about how they were raised, the bias that they hold.” 

Reflecting afterwards, Schmidt, the novice facilitator, says the experience was meaningful. Yet she still feels stuck with a sense of inaction. “There is a helpless feeling,” she says. “It’s reality. There is no easy fix.” For his part, Williams has a desire to do more. “You’re open and want to continue the dialogue in some way,” he says. Williams channels that yearning into his work, bringing the content to a weekly directors’ meeting to see if there is a way to incorporate the model into a future training about dealing with unconscious bias.

This phenomenon — participants left yearning for more — is part of the goal. By creating a safe space and starting person-to-person, the YWCA hopes to inspire people to bring the model back to their workplaces, to expand from the individual to institutional and community levels. It starts with people owning their unconscious bias and then being able to look at institutions, Margaret Mitchell says. “There’s an area in all of our lives to be a champion of dismantling racism. We take a little corner and begin to peel it back.”

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Shari Nacson is a Cleveland-based mother, editor, child development specialist and nonprofit consultant with a passion for the promotion of engaged citizenship via family and school-based service projects during early childhood.

Gabe Schaffer lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with his wife, three kids and several chickens. He has been, among other things, a freelance photojournalist for over 15 years.

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2018.

33 Remarkable Things Happening In The Food World That Will Make Your Day

By Stacy Basko

Need a break from what can feel like an endless supply of bad news? Here are 33 inspiring things happening in the food world, from refugee-run enterprises to restaurants that serve everyone, regardless of whether or not they can pay.

1. Anyone can enjoy South Indian specialties at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café whether they are able to pay or not. “Nobody turned away due to lack of money. Food is a human right,” reads the sign outside the restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC. “When Vimala cooks, everybody eats.”

2. The University of California at Irvine opened a food pantry that evolved into a wellness center. It’s now a model for colleges across the country that help food-insecure students stay in school.

3. Eat for Equity, Syria Supper Club, and Queer Soup Night throw dinner parties where like-minded folks come together to feast, fundraise, and maybe even dance a little. Each organization encourages generosity and creates community through the shared experience of a fabulous meal.  

4. Houston café A 2nd Cup provides coffee, lunch, and a place to combat slavery and human trafficking. Funds from each sale help raise public awareness and provide housing, tutoring, job training and more for survivors as they restart their lives.

5. Intending to bridge small farmers of color who lack market outlets with urban communities that lack access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food, Phat Beets Produce strives for a more equitable food system in gentrifying Oakland, CA.

6. In Wisconsin, adults with disabilities find training for future employment at Café Hope along with opportunities to reach their full potential in society.

7. In New York City, League of Kitchens matches immigrants who teach cooking classes in their homes with students eager to learn about food from around the world. Lessons bring people together to cook, eat and share stories, with family recipes and shopping tips provided at the end.

8. Star chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen has served more than three million meals in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. And Queer Kitchen Brigade continues to can farm-fresh vegetables and send jars to the island.

9. For the last 30 years, homeless women have been able to live with their children at a shelter in Sacramento, CA, and obtain life and job skills working at Plates Café and Catering. The program has provided nearly 30,000 women and children with tools to overcome poverty and lead healthier, more self-sufficient lives.

10. Good Food Markets, a nonprofit grocery store that works in, and for, food-desert communities in Washington D.C., is opening a second location. Partnering with local growers, producers, and distributors allows the stores to bring quality products and fresh food to neighborhoods that need it.

11. Across the country, Restaurant Opportunities Center United pushes to improve food service wages and working conditions so that everyone in the industry can achieve financial independence and improve their quality of life.

12. With training, scholarships, and enrichment programs, C-CAP helps underserved high school students complete culinary school in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and other US cities.

13. Meals at Café Momentum in Dallas, TX, are prepared and served by young men and women who earn wages and learn the trade as they complete a transformative 12-month  internship following incarceration.

14. In the face of attempted travel bans, refugee-run enterprises like Global Grace Café, Refugee Coffee, and Eat Offbeat offer employment for recent arrivals and a unique eating experience for diners.

15. Lunch shaming, the practice of humiliating students or denying them food when they can’t pay for it, has been banned in Pennsylvania and California while lawmakers in the state of Washington are considering similar legislation.

16. Greyston Bakery’s “open hiring” policy enables cooks with no education or experience to learn how to bake the brownies that make Ben & Jerry’s ice cream so delicious.

17. Baked goods from Homeboy Foods give formerly gang-involved men and women a new way to belong in Los Angeles, CA. Cooks work with case managers to set goals and devise a plan to obtain job skills or a high school diploma, or form a course of action following parole or probation.

18. Haley House, an interdisciplinary program that rounds out its food justice offerings with affordable housing, has been established in Boston for more than half a century. The agency’s overarching goal is to help those made vulnerable by the harshest effects of inequality move toward wholeness and economic independence.

19. Art, activism, storytelling, food, and community come together at People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, CA. Through international dinners, workshops, performances, speeches, installations and more, the collective not only fills stomachs, but nourishes souls and feeds minds, ultimately fueling a movement.

20. Drive Change operates food trucks with a social justice mission in New York City.  They impart transferable skills that broaden education and employment opportunities for young people coming home from adult jail and prison.

21. Komeeda’s Displaced Kitchen dinners allow recently resettled refugees a way to share their stories with fellow New Yorkers.  Diners discover flavors they may never have known and socialize with chefs whose passion shines beyond their food

22. Kids create and sell salads at Minnesota Twins games with Roots for the Home Team.  They attain culinary skills in the kitchen and sales skills working with the public. For many,  it’s their first paying job outside of their own community.

23. Edwin’s Restaurant prepares formerly incarcerated adults for the world of fine dining in Cleveland, OH, while FareStart’s training programs help cooks affected by joblessness, poverty and hunger thrive in the Seattle food scene

24. Self-sufficiency is the main goal at Work Options for Women in Denver, CO. The organization helps low-income women break the cycle of poverty by instilling skills, confidence and support that lead to economic independence.

25. Harlem Grown’s urban farms inspire healthy living by increasing access to, and knowledge of, fresh locally grown food. They also run a summer camp for kids in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.

26. ALBA’s ‘Farmworker to Farmer’ program enables agricultural workers in Salinas, CA, to grow and sell organic crops of their own. With broader skills, farmworkers are able to advance into management positions and maybe one day acquire a farm of their own.

27. Youth who have trouble finding regular employment run an artisanal chocolate shop called Confections with Convictions in Kalamazoo, MI. Opened by a counselor who worked with young people in the court system turned chocolatier, the shop emphasizes fair wages and local, organic, or fair trade ingredients.

28. DC Central Kitchen (Washington D.C.), Liberty’s Kitchen (New Orleans, LA), and Root (Salem, MA) are interdisciplinary agencies that uplift young people through education, employment, mentoring, meals, and more.  At Liberty Kitchen, 16 to 24 year-old youth who are out of work or school attend a 16-week program where they attain life skills, culinary, and customer service training and professional development.

29. Across the country, food incubators like La Cocina, Hot Bread Kitchen, West Side Bazaar, and Comal Heritage Food Incubator help low-income food entrepreneurs realize their small business dreams.

30. A new online tool rates the risk for human rights abuses on fishing boats around the world, which helps businesses ethically manage seafood supply chains. “The Seafood Slavery Risk Tool” is run jointly by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, Liberty Asia, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.

31. Philadelphia Assembled Kitchen, a group of 12 culinary artists, cooks, and storytellers, creates recipes and pop-up meals around themes of survival, resistance, and victory.

32. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, people with a critical illness find support and nutritious, culturally-appropriate meals through Community Servings. The organization  allows clients to maintain their health, dignity and family connections, while sending the message that someone cares.

33. At Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, NJ, an hour of kitchen work earns anyone a meal along with four family members. SAME Café in Denver, CO, has a similar policy.

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Stacy Basko is a freelance writer and recipe developer with past lives in branding, marketing and non-profits. Her career has taken her into boardrooms, 4-star kitchens and state prisons. She writes in New Jersey, close enough, but not too far from New York City.

Cover photo courtesy of Work Options for Women in Denver, CO.

 Copyright © 500 Pens. March 2017.

7 Ways To Help Kids Fight Hatred

Written by Julia Haskins
Photo by Suzanne Tennant

As much as we like to shield our kids from hatred in all its forms — from homophobia to sexism and racism to Islamophobia — there’s no getting around the fact that injustice is all around us. And the last year has been particularly tough for many people. We’ve seen spikes in hate crimes and have watched dangerous bigots take to the streets, inciting violence and destroying our sense of peace and security.

These are scary times, no doubt. But we can resist, starting within our own families. We can teach our children how to respond to hatred and help them stand against injustice. Here’s how you can make that a reality:

Celebrate differences

You probably mean well if you claim that you “don’t see color,” but it does no good to deny the differences that make up our humanity. It’s also not realistic.

Wife-husband duo Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas created the group EmbraceRace with the underlying principle that race matters. Kids are forming opinions about race earlier than you may think, so give them the tools to talk openly about race and racism.

“The research bears out that if you’re trying to protect your kids by not talking about something, you’re not acknowledging that they’re actually talking about it every day,” Giraud says. “The lessons they’re learning are not very nuanced and are not necessarily the ones you want them to be learning about race.”

Whether you’re addressing race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other identity that makes people unique, don’t be afraid to recognize that we aren’t all the same. And that’s a good thing.

Acknowledge privilege

Recognizing your own privilege is no easy task. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge your advantages in relation to others, be it education level, citizenship status, income, or the countless other ways that we may be comparably better or worse off.

Consider how your and your family’s privilege will influence discussions of oppression and injustice. Just be careful not to conflate privilege with guilt. Remember that privilege is neutral in and of itself — it’s how you wield your privilege that matters.

“Guilt is not productive, and parents need to work through that on their own,” says Phyllis Fagell, licensed clinical professional counselor, certified professional school counselor, and journalist. “Don’t put your guilt on people who are marginalized, because that makes it all about you.”

Create a safe space for communication

Even if they don’t show it, your kids may be struggling to understand the bigotry they see on TV and the internet or encounter in school. Make yourself open to whatever fears or concerns your children may have so that they’re comfortable coming to you for guidance.

“Gentle probing questions such as, ‘What have you heard or seen about this?’ or ‘Who told you about it? What did they say?’ provide an opportunity to clear up misinformation and dispel rumors they may have heard from friends or social media,” says Jinnie Spiegler, director of communication at the Anti-Defamation League.

Every child is different, but you can take your kids’ ages and maturity levels into account when having conversations about bigotry, Fagell says.

“With older kids, parents can focus on both the individual and systemic ramifications of hate and what to do when they observe it in their community,” she says. “With younger kids, it makes more sense to keep the focus on the individual or perhaps on the classroom culture. Ask, ‘What does it do to your community when someone is made to feel they don’t belong?’”

Practice self-care

People of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, Jews, and other historically marginalized groups are no strangers to bigotry. But with increases in physical violence and hate speech toward the people who have long suffered under the weight of oppression, many families may be feeling especially drained right now.

“For many years, families of color have been talking about events like Charlottesville with their children,” says Dennis Chin, communications director at Race Forward. “This is a matter of survival for some of these families.”

Janine Gomez, leadership coach and middle school assistant principal at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., saw “terrified” kids crying in the hallways after the 2016 presidential election. While some students didn’t understand the larger implications of the new administration, they did know that the adults in their lives were also hurting. That pain trickles down to the kids, Gomez says, which is why self-care is a necessity for all family members.

“This is a time where people really need to have human contact and human connection, so get off the phone, get off of all of that, and spend time with your children,” Gomez says. “Laugh with them, play outside. That’s what everybody needs right now.”

While you can’t control the hateful actions of others, you can help your family members feel loved and worthy.

“One crucial point parents can and should emphasize is that being a target is not about them, it’s about a greater unfairness in the world,” Chin says.

Don’t stop at one discussion

Discussions about hatred can’t begin and end with high-profile crises such as the terrorism over the summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. These aren’t just singular events; we need to talk about the greater historical, political, and social contexts in which hatred festers. We also need to approach each conversation as a starting point to unpack more complex topics, such as the intersections of oppression. This is more than just a talk.

“The talk is life,” says Jaime Grant, executive director of PFLAG National. “The talk is every day, depending on what [your kids] bring to you.”

A one-and-done chat about the latest demonstration of hatred isn’t sufficient, especially when there’s no shortage of examples to draw upon. We can’t ignore the manifold ways that hatred plagues our communities, as well as its deep roots in society. If we don’t address these problems, we inadvertently normalize them, Grant says.  

Move from talking to action

Make it a point to go beyond talking about injustice and do something about it. Help your children channel their empathy, sadness, or frustration into constructive everyday activism and show them that they are never too young to take a stand.

“While it’s important to talk about issues in the news with young people, it can also make them feel disempowered and hopeless, especially when complicated situations involving hate and social injustice occur,” Spiegler says. “Adults can play a vital role in instilling a sense of power and hope in young people — a belief that one person or a group of people can make a positive difference.”

There is no limit to the number of ways that you can help the young people in your life become active in social justice. Here are just a few ideas to get started:

  • Write letters to your elected officials about bigotry and hatred in your community
  • Attend a social justice-oriented protest or rally
  • Write letters of support to victims of hate crimes
  • Hold a fundraiser for a social justice-focused organization, especially one that has been a target of bigoted attacks
  • Talk to your local library about stocking shelves with stories by and about marginalized peoples or donate some of your own
  • Talk to the leaders in your place of worship about interfaith collaboration within your community
  • Invite classmates from different families for playdates or meals. You can even get the whole class involved in cross-cultural activities.

Of course, acts of virtue don’t have to be large in scale. Remind your kids that every day presents opportunities to show courage in the face of injustice.

Show that progress is possible

In the midst of a volatile sociopolitical climate, children need to see that there are, and always have been, victories on the side of righteousness. Every chance you can, point out the successes in the name of diversity, inclusion, and love. Be sure to highlight the achievements carried out by regular people, especially kids.

While there are people who do stand for hate and seek to cause harm, there are plenty of people who are doing good, even if that’s hard to see right now, says Grant-Thomas.

“This is an ongoing struggle,” he says. “People who are hated have survived this before.”

Tell your children the stories of people who, faced with every obstacle, have risen to the challenge and worked to create a more just world. Show them that they can also be part of that history.

“Every story of oppression is also a story of resistance,” Grant-Thomas says. “Be sure kids know that too.”

For more information, check out these resources:

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice

EmbraceRace Tip Sheet

How to Talk to Kids About Race: Books and Resources That Can Help

Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

The Dos and Dont’s of Talking to Kids of Color About White Supremacy

Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice

The Conversation You Must Have With Your Kids Today

Talking to Children About Racial Bias

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Julia Haskins is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She is a reporter for The Nation’s Health newspaper at the American Public Health Association and a communications fellow at the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. Her writing has appeared in ReadersDigest.com, People.com, Parents.com, Healthline and more.


Suzanne Tennant is a freelance editorial, commercial and family photographer based in the Chicago area. She was a staff photographer with Sun-Times Media Company from 2006 to 2011. During that  time she won awards in the Illinois Press Photographers Association “Best of Photojournalism.” She has also been a freelance photographer in the Seattle area.

Copyright © 500 Pens. 

From Migrant Worker To Doctor: An Immigrant’s Journey

By Memsy Price

On an average workday, Dr. Ana Benitez-Graham sees between forty and fifty patients. She begins work at 7:00 a.m. at her dermatology practice in Mebane, North Carolina, a small town located about midway between Greensboro and Durham. After her early start, she often works through lunch and then heads home in the evening to have supper with her family. Her life — that of a successful American doctor, wife and mother — isn’t one she ever imagined for herself as a child.

It’s a long way from Mexico to North Carolina. And the journey from teenage migrant worker to doctor is even longer.

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Benitez-Graham, her mother and three of her siblings arrived in Austin, Texas, in 1983. She and the other kids rode in the trunk of a coyote’s — a smuggler’s — car. At 13 years old, she was an adult by the standards of her village back in Bejucos, Mexico. But when she got to America, she reasoned, she’d still be considered a child and could attend school. She knew it was her right, even though she and the rest of her family were undocumented.

She did go to school, but she didn’t speak English and was placed two grades behind where she’d been in Mexico. And school was complicated because Benitez-Graham had responsibilities beyond her studies. Her parents wanted — and needed — their children to work. The family’s first job was the same as many in their situation. They became migrant farmworkers, picking tomatoes, apples, peppers and cotton in the searing southwestern sun.

“There was always a goal, that wide-open hope, that it’s going to get better, so you’re willing to pick apples for three weeks straight. It was horrible, but I thought that next month we’re going to be at school; it’s going to be okay. And it was,” she explained.

Benitez-Graham continued to go to school when she could. But when she moved on to working long hours at a commercial laundry facility — her shift changed from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. — school proved impossible.

She never gave up, though.

“I really liked learning,” said Benitez-Graham, matter-of-factly. “I was able to keep that part of me going because I wanted it.”

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Ana in the middle in a white dress with her uncle, cousin and sister. Photo courtesy of Ana Benitez-Graham.

In a 2007 American Public Media interview on “The Story,” she described going to the public library every day, even after she dropped out of school. In her spare time, “one by one,” she devoured the books she saw on a list of the titles everyone should read before high school graduation.

She worked her way up through a series of restaurant jobs and met her future husband, who encouraged her to start community college. At the time, she could enroll without a high school diploma. Benitez-Graham returned to school and continued to work. She eventually entered the University of Texas at Austin — completing a pharmacy degree in five and a half years — and forged a path to citizenship.

In her last semester at UT, she was assigned to a rural hospital in El Paso to complete a pharmacy rotation. Benitez-Graham was part of a team working under the supervision of Dr. Abraham Verghese, an immigrant physician and internal medicine specialist. Verghese, an Ethiopian national of Indian descent, is also a best-selling author whose first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, recounted his days confronting the AIDS epidemic in Johnson City, Tennessee.

In her 1994 New York Times review of Verghese’s memoir, Perri Klass, herself a physician, wrote: “Another strand in Dr. Verghese’s narrative is his own personal niche within American medicine and its hospitals: the story of the Indian F.M.G.’s (foreign medical graduates, as they are called, often disparagingly) who have found their professional opportunities in places where the supply of home-grown doctors has not been sufficient, and have spread out through the rural South.”

This observation about immigrant doctors in the rural South seems apt when considering Benitez-Graham’s work in Mebane. And it’s not surprising to learn that Verghese inspired her to be a physician.

“He had a really good bedside manner,” she said. “For every patient, he had their story, and it was very impressive. I hadn’t seen medicine up close but then seeing it with someone like that was a whole new experience. After that I decided I wanted to be a doctor.”

After self-financing her pharmacy degree, Benitez-Graham went on to complete her medical degree at Duke and her residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, schools renowned for their large research hospitals and top-notch dermatology departments. During her medical studies, she received a prestigious Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Benitez-Graham was recruited by the hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, adjacent to Mebane, in 2010, when she was ready to open her own practice. Mebane is a small factory and agricultural town whose entire population could fit into a high-school football stadium.

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Dr. Ana Benitez-Graham in her office. Photo by Tasha Thomas.

“Whenever you look at places to go and practice as a dermatologist,” Benitez-Graham remembered, “the numbers are something like one dermatologist needs 50,000 people to support them. Mebane has about 11,000 people, so I was wondering if I was going to make it.”

The county hospital had spent almost a decade trying to recruit a dermatologist when it persuaded Benitez-Graham to open her practice. “Dermatologists really have their pick of where they want to go,” she said. “Going to a small place to practice rural medicine is not their thing, even though it’s really exciting because you get to see everything.”

When she first opened her doors, Benitez-Graham wasn’t sure how she would be accepted as a newcomer — and a foreigner — in such an insular, small town.

“Moving here, I became Mexican,” she observed. “I wasn’t Mexican before — I was just a person. Coming here all of a sudden my features were very prominent. People would look at me and try to figure out, ‘Where are you from?’ It was kind of daunting because I do have an accent, and I do look Hispanic, and I wasn’t sure how they would accept me, but they did.”

Mebane is in some ways emblematic of the urban-rural divide playing out across the nation. Conversation around this divide touches on issues including income, education and immigration. Reflecting on the current rhetoric around immigration, Benitez-Graham noted that politicians in particular use it “to divide people so the immigrant debate is always divided between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.”

Although she’d long experienced acceptance from her patients, she was concerned about whether they’d continue to treat her so warmly after Alamance County, where Mebane is located, turned out for Donald Trump. After all, he had made his opinions on those who arrived in the country like Benitez-Graham did clear with his plans to “build a wall” as well as his “bad hombres” applause line and other statements like it.

Voting statistics show evidence of the divide between Mebane and neighboring cities like Durham and Chapel Hill. The North Carolina Board of Elections’ data from the November elections shows that Trump won Alamance County by 54.55% to 41.93% over Clinton. (In contrast, neighboring Durham County, where Benitez-Graham lives with her family, went 77.66% for Clinton and 18.16% for Trump.)

But between Benitez-Graham and her patients, the feeling of acceptance hasn’t changed. She’s had a positive experience thus far: “I haven’t had a single person come in and say, ‘I don’t want you to be my doctor.’ They have been very welcoming…it’s been a very eye-opening experience.”

Dr. Alvis Dunn, a native of rural North Carolina and an assistant professor in the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, specializes in the history of Latin America and the American South. “North Carolina history isn’t necessarily predictable,” he said. “We are a series of enclave communities, and now there’s a Hispanic side of town. We’ve been content to wall ourselves off from one another, but it’s not a high wall — you can look over it.”

This virtual wall, Dunn said, has become especially important in rural North Carolina, where, as he put it, “the enclaves all touch each other.” When Benitez-Graham noted the disparity between how the Mebane area voted in the presidential election and how her patients treat her, she observed a “disconnect between what people vote for and what they accept in their lives.”  

Dunn explained one way to look at the disconnect is the historical dynamics of the group vs. the individual. Perceptions can change when abstract concepts hit home, i.e., when immigration becomes personal, fewer people support deportation. “The more an issue can be humanized,” Dunn said, “the less people support it.”

Benitez-Graham said about sharing her journey from migrant worker to dermatologist, “I think this is a really good way of trying to fight it off — bring it back to us and to, ‘Who’s your doctor?’ Who’s your neighbor?’ Showing faces shows we’re all much closer than we really are.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Memsy Price is a writer and editor based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has worked at Algonquin Books and “The Rough South” series of films about Southern writers. She completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.

Cover photo: Ana (in a red dress) pictured with her cousin and sister in 1979.

Copyright © 500 Pens. 

White Supremacist Propaganda On Campus Increased By 258% Last Year. This Is How Experts Plan To Fight Back.

By Amy Crawford

The flyers first began popping up around Auburn University in April, around the time notorious white nationalist Richard Spencer visited the Alabama campus to give a well-attended speech about how white people are losing a “demographic struggle.”

“They were all over campus,” says Beth McDaniel, a fifth-year doctoral student who serves as president of Auburn’s Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on Campus chapter.

It was already a tense time at Auburn, which had lost a court battle after it attempted to prevent Spencer’s visit based on safety concerns. In a statement informing students, staff and faculty of the court’s decision, the provost’s office had declared, “Whether it’s offensive rhetoric, offensive flyers around campus, or inappropriate remarks on social media, we will not allow the efforts of individuals or groups to undermine Auburn’s core values of inclusion and diversity and challenge the ideals personified by the Auburn Creed.”

The notices were advertising something called the White Student Union, an unsanctioned group—with a website making it look sanctioned by the university—that seemed to position itself in opposition to official university clubs like the Black Student Union. While the leafleteers have been careful not to reveal their identities, the self-described president identified himself as a current student when he was interviewed anonymously by a British journalist last year.

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A photo of one of the flyers found on the campus of Auburn University. Photo courtesy of SPLC on Campus.

“They’re using the Auburn University name, and they say that they are there to represent the needs of white Auburn students and faculty,” says McDaniel. Noting that the same British journalist interviewed members of the Auburn community who openly expressed support for the concept, she worries that a certain segment of the school’s student body—those who are disengaged politically and unlikely to think through the full implications of pitting white people against other groups—may be vulnerable to this propaganda.

“Like past white student unions, the Auburn White Student Union couches its mission statement in the language of love and egalitarianism. In reality, the organization promotes a false narrative about the forced replacement of white people and advocates for a white ethnostate,” explains Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. “The group’s ‘Pro-White Resources’ [website] page promotes white nationalist organizations such as American Renaissance, a ‘think-tank’ that’s primary mission is to publicize false statistics about black criminality and white victimhood.”

The Auburn community is not alone in facing threats of this kind. A study released this month by the Anti-Defamation League found that white supremacist propaganda at colleges across the United States increased by 258 percent between fall 2016 and fall 2017, with more than 200 campuses affected. And while the evidence often suggests that outside groups are responsible, advocates for tolerance and inclusion worry that white students across the nation’s campuses may be open to the messaging—and even to recruitment. It’s a danger that, according to Lecia Brooks, the SPLC’s Outreach Director, demands a new strategy from campus administrators who focus on diversity and inclusion: reaching out directly to disengaged white students in order to inoculate them against hate.

Brooks spends most of the year crisscrossing the country, visiting colleges and universities to speak on issues of social justice and working to support the network of SPLC on Campus clubs that has been taking on intolerance since 2015. Recently, she has added a new message to her talks.

“This really started with Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagements in Berkeley,” Brooks says, referring to clashes between fans of the alt-right provocateur and antifascist protesters in February 2017. “I was just offended. He was playing these young white men like a fiddle. They so enjoyed having a group and having some kind of presence and getting some kind of celebrity, and they’re vulnerable to these white nationalists’ messages about so-called ‘white genocide’ or ‘nobody cares about you.’ I realized, ‘Wow, we need to deliver the message to them that we care about them too.’ We can’t let them just fall prey to these liars.”

The responsibility, Brooks says, lies primarily with administrators who focus on diversity and inclusion—a specialty that has spread across campuses in recent years. It would be unfair to ask students of color, who are already burdened with more emotional labor than their more privileged peers, to do the work of reaching out to the sort of young white men who may be open to messages from the alt-right, she cautions. Still, it’s also important that diversity and inclusion offices not focus their work solely on supporting marginalized communities.

“I’ve been doing community-building work for a really long time,” Brooks says. “Anyone doing community-building should know that you really have to be intentional about bringing everybody in.”

That means, according to Brooks, in addition to fostering dialogue, administrators need to recruit adult mentors—white faculty and staff who understand the dynamics of racial oppression and power and privilege and can lead groups that talk about what it means to be white—and why it doesn’t have to mean embracing racism and rejecting diversity.

Bringing more white students “to the table” is something that has preoccupied Jabrina Robinson, dean of students at Siena College in upstate New York, ever since Brooks visited to give a talk and meet with administrators this past fall.

“We’ve noticed, over time, you often have the same groups coming to the table, and it’s kind of a preaching-to-the-choir type of audience,” Robinson says. “So we’re really looking at how we can better engage students who have not traditionally been as actively engaged in the conversation of diversity and inclusion—specifically, our white male students…. I think sometimes white males feel like conversations around diversity and inclusion are more about blaming. So how do we not do that, how do we really make everybody comfortable and willing to engage in the conversation so we can all grow?”

While Siena has not seen the same racially-charged incidents that have plagued other schools, Robinson knows that no college campus is immune to attracting the attention of white supremacists. Siena’s first step in counteracting their message will be to organize focus groups of white students to help administrators better understand how to bring them into the fold.

“We want to target students who traditionally don’t come or aren’t as actively engaged in these conversations,” she says. “Besides extra credit, what would attract you to conversations on these issues and what would engage you? Do you feel alienated if you see a poster that says, ‘Let’s talk about race,’ do you feel like you’re not actually supposed to come to this conversation? Do you feel that you’re not truly invited?”

Robinson’s goal is to complete the focus groups this semester. Once the results are compiled and analyzed, she says, it will help the college decide how to modify its diversity programming to include more of the student body.

“I think we’re doing things pretty well here,” she says. “But how can we do it better, and reach more people?”

Back at Auburn, the White Student Union retains its unofficial status—according to Haven Hart, the university’s assistant vice president for student development, it has never submitted any documents to become a recognized student organization. Still, an unknown number of members continue to post on the group’s blog and on social media—including with frequent retweets of messages from the white nationalist group Identity Europa.

Beth McDaniel is hopeful, however, that fostering dialogue with white students could help counteract the White Student Union’s propaganda. Through talks with administrators and SPLC on Campus programming, she wants to reach students where they are, rather than expecting them to take the initiative to get involved with diversity and inclusion efforts. That could mean getting professors or Greek organizations involved, visiting classrooms or asking white students to start hard conversations with their family, friends, classmates and dorm neighbors.

“It’s sometimes hard to go into these situations, because emotions are high on both sides,” she says. “But we need to be willing to actually try to help educate these students and realize that they’re not bad people. Many Auburn students come from white, middle- or upper-class communities that are very segregated—our society’s set up that way, and I think that a lot of students just don’t consider the experiences of other people and then fear any difference. But they’re a product of their environment, and people can change.”

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in partnership with the SPLC.  

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Amy Crawford is a freelance writer living in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @amymcrawf.

Cover photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash. 

Copyright © 500 Pens. February 2018.

 

How to Take Aim at Gun Violence

By Steve Tanner
Photo by David Moriya/Rogue Photo 

More than half of all Americans support stricter gun laws, according to a recent Pew Research report. Another recently conducted Pew survey found that supporters of stricter gun laws are less likely to contact elected officials than gun owners, which means there’s still plenty of work to be done. 

Simply stated, we are not powerless. In addition to calling your state and federal representatives, you can check out the following list of prominent gun control advocacy organizations and get involved.   

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America

Moms Demand Action was founded by Shannon Watts, a concerned stay-at-home mother, in late 2012 in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Current campaigns include the following:

  • Educators Demand Action  a campaign opposing the gun lobby’s attempt at putting guns in schools and on college campuses
  • Pressure to implement background checks on all gun sales in Nevada
  • Opposition to the SHARE Act, a broad piece of federal legislation that would, among other provisions, legalize silencers, protect the use of lead ammunition by hunters, and open up more federal lands to hunting.
  • Opposition to the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would force all states to recognize concealed carry weapon permits from other states.

How to get involved:

Everytown for Gun Safety

Everytown was founded in 2014, combining Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action (see above) into a single organization. The group is co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Current campaigns include the following (keep in mind that Everytown and Moms Demand Action work in concert with one another):

  • Pressure to implement universal background checks at the federal level
  • Phone drives to call federal Representatives and Senators about opposing the SHARE Act and Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act

How to get involved:

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence 

First founded in 1974 as the National Council to Control Handguns, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was renamed in 2001. James Brady, a cabinet member who was seriously injured during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, led the organization from 1989 to 2012.

Current campaigns include the following:

How to get involved:

  • Call elected representatives, sign/organize petitions, volunteer at local Brady Campaign chapters
  • Donate to the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project

Violence Policy Center

Founded in 1988 by Newtown, Connecticut native Josh Sugarmann, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) employs research, education, advocacy, and collaboration with other organizations committed to curbing gun violence. 

The VPC suggests the five following ways concerned individuals can do to stop gun violence:

  1. Contact your federal and state lawmakers (directory at OpenStates.org and the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121) and voice your opposition to federal and state legislation that further erodes gun protections.
  2. Make a contribution to the Violence Policy Center. Or, create your own online fundraiser. Visit the Violence Policy Center’s pages on the crowdfunding sites Crowdrise and Razoo.
  3. Join a local gun violence prevention organization. Visit States United to Prevent Gun Violence, the national umbrella organization for state gun violence prevention organizations to find a group in your state.
  4. Write a letter to the editor in your local paper in support of gun violence prevention, or use social media. Visit the VPC’s Twitter feed or their Facebook page for tweets and postings detailing the facts about gun violence, as well as effective solutions.
  5. Host an evening of information and action to educate your friends and community about gun violence.

National Gun Victims Action Council

Elliot Fineman founded the National Gun Victims Action Council (NGVAC) in 2006 after his only son, Michael, was fatally shot by a mentally-ill man who, despite having been institutionalized twice, was legally able to buy the gun. One of the organization’s campaigns successfully convinced Starbucks to change its gun policy.

Current campaigns and initiatives include the following:

  • Sign a petition urging the President to declare the gun violence epidemic a National State of Emergency.
  • Check out the NGVAC’s Corporate Hypocrite of the Month and take appropriate action (boycotts, protests, letters, etc.).
  • Sign the Tell and Compel Pledge, which tells legislators you want strong, sane gun laws and pledge to withhold all financial support from corporations and states that do not support these protections.
  • Sign up to receive email updates from NGVAC.
  • Make a donation.

Remember, those who want saner gun protections such as universal background checks and bans on certain types of weapons are in the majority. Let’s use our voices accordingly.

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Steve Tanner worked as a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 10 years, covering technology, business, and the culture of Silicon Valley, before pursuing a paralegal certification. He currently writes about the law for FindLaw.com and lives with his family in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Photo of protesters outside of NRA headquarters in July 2017 by David Moriya of Rogue Photo.  

Copyright © 500 Pens.

 

Teens Explore Past, ‘Privilege’ And Path To Overcoming Discrimination

By Julia Haskins

On a brisk Saturday morning, the students of Operation Understanding DC (OUDC) crowd a messy hotel conference room, hard at work. Markers and poster board are strewn about, along with junk food to fuel discussions about the intersection of race and religion. Two-dozen teenagers are acting out skits and designing games and posters for their presentations on leaders of the civil rights movement. Several students huddle to practice a rap they’ve written about the Montgomery Improvement Association:

We have a broken system and we’re looking for improvement/
The racists wanna stop us but we keep movin’/
We want our equal rights ‘cause we are all just human/
Up in Alabama in 1955/
They tried to keep us down but we wouldn’t ever hide/
Boycotts, resistance, civil disobedience/
Fighting ideologies of local segregationists

The cramped conference room buzzes with laughter and debate as students put the finishing touches on their projects.

Since 1993, Operation Understanding DC has brought together a group of high school juniors in the Washington, D.C., metro region — half are African-American and half are Jewish — for a year of cross-cultural exploration. The civil rights retreat is one opportunity for students to discover the ways their backgrounds overlap, and how, together, they can overcome discrimination on all fronts.

“I think the black and Jewish experience is the foundation for future growth,” Executive Director Yolanda Savage-Narva says. The theme of black-Jewish resistance is underscored throughout the weekend with activities that highlight the unity of two oppressed peoples during the civil rights movement.

The students learn over the course of the retreat that it was a group of young Jewish and black civil-rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who were murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964. It was the collaboration of black and Jewish leaders that led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Time and time again, the students learn, black and Jewish people have stood together in the face of adversity.

Aside from this retreat, during the spring, the students of “Class 23” take part in a home exchange for Easter and Passover. In a few months, they will embark on a Summer Journey through the Deep South, continuing their education on civil rights from the past to the present.

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Operation Understanding DC brings together black and Jewish high school juniors in the Washington, D.C., metro region for a year of cross-cultural exploration. Photo by Jared Soares.

“We’re two very different cultures, but at the same time, not,” says student Julian Dowell. “As minorities and as oppressed groups, there’s always going to be commonalities between us. So coming to OUDC, I’ve been able to find those and just connect.”

Dowell says it’s the small moments that show students how they are more alike than different. After programs finish for the day, black and Jewish students go back to their hotel rooms, chatting about the everyday experiences that bond them.

“There’s just little things, like when you’re up in your room up at night talking, like, ‘Oh you go through that?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, I go through that.’ Those are the most important moments in my opinion,” Dowell says.

Program Director Ricki Horne understands the power of conversation in shaping personal views. An OUDC alumna, Horne was moved by the discussions her sister, who was the first in her family to participate in the program, would spark at the dinner table. That led Horne to reflect on her own “privilege” and how she unwittingly took part in systemic forms of oppression.

There’s a saying at OUDC that sums up the program experience, according to Horne. “The relational is transformational,” she explains. “Once you’ve built that connection with another human, you can overcome a lot.”

Civil rights-era activist Joan Mulholland brings up issues of power and privilege in a Saturday afternoon presentation, wearing a T-shirt that commemorates the nine black people who were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Readers who don’t know Mulholland by name may have seen an image of her from 1963: a white woman, her face turned away from the camera, sitting in between Anne Moody and Hunter Gray at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. The student activists are covered in food that’s been dumped on them by the surrounding mob.

The students are enthralled by Mulholland’s presentation, and many go up to hug and thank her afterward. One of those students is Sydney Smith, who says she was touched by Mulholland’s courage to resist a racist society, even though the injustices she witnessed had little bearing on her own life.

“So many people feel like, ‘Oh I’m not oppressed, I don’t really have anything to do with this,’ but you do,” Smith says. “And Joan is the perfect example of how someone who’s in a position of power can really make a difference and stand with people who don’t have a voice.”

It’s that attitude that Rhema Jones had in mind when applying for OUDC. “I said it in my interview that I really wanted to be brave. I really wanted to stand up for people who can’t…even when it’s hard,” Jones says. ”By the end of the program, I want to be wiser and able to create change.”  

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Yolanda Savage-Narva is executive director of Operation Understanding DC. Photo by Jared Soares.

To work toward progress, students must confront their own power and privilege, they are taught. An OUDC tradition is the “privilege walk,” an exercise that shows students where they literally stand in terms of their advantages in life. The students form a straight line side by side. Horne calls out a statement, and students take steps forward or backward in response. “I attend a private school” is a step forward. “I have gone to bed hungry because there was no food at home” is a step backward. After about 15 minutes, there is a stark distance between the student who stands at the front and the one who stands at the back.

After the walk, some students are visibly upset. Horne gathers the students in a circle on the floor of the hotel conference room, first to inhale and exhale deeply, shaking off the intensity of the walk. The discussion that follows is occasionally awkward, sometimes heated and peppered with snaps of approval.

Discomfort is part of the OUDC experience, says Ella Buring. And with an embrace of discomfort comes the ability to respect other people’s realities. “Commit to not being comfortable, and you will be exposed to other viewpoints,” Buring says. “That does not mean that everyone’s going to walk out thinking the exact same thing.”

OUDC offers a safe space to engage in heavy discourse “because all of those social barriers sort of disappear here,” she says.

And social barriers do seem to evaporate when the students lead Shabbat and Havdalah services on Friday and Saturday night, respectively, and a sermon followed by upbeat gospel music on Sunday. There’s a lot of hugging, which Buring says is not uncommon within OUDC.

The students cherish these moments, as they rarely come up organically in daily life. Ben Vardi says that while his college-prep school is fairly diverse, most interactions don’t go beyond the surface.

“I think that it’s really important that we do expose more people to more situations, and I think the best way to do that is through education,” he says.

The timing of the civil rights retreat is not lost among the students, some of whom openly express their fears about living in such a volatile political climate. Black and Jewish students alike are no strangers to the intensifying racism and anti-Semitism throughout the country.

It can be challenging to find common ground across cultures, but that is exactly what is needed right now, Dowell says.

“I think right now it’s all about listening,” he says. “Even our community rule is listening to hear and not to respond. And I think that that’s what we don’t necessarily do nowadays. Everyone’s so quick to respond, ’cause everyone’s so opinionated.”

The students of OUDC are certainly opinionated, but they didn’t commit to a year of extracurricular activity to talk over one another. They want to bridge the barriers that continue to divide, one lesson and one conversation at a time.

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Julia Haskins is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She is a reporter for The Nation’s Health newspaper at the American Public Health Association and a communications fellow at the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. Her writing has appeared in ReadersDigest.com, People.com, Parents.com, Healthline and more.

 

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Jared Soares specializes in documenting underrepresented communities and was named one of 51 Instagram photographers to follow by TIME Magazine. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker and in permanent collections at the Portland Museum of Art and the University of North Carolina.

Originally published in May 2017. Copyright © 500 Pens. 

In The Picture: The Refugees Who Now Call America ‘Home’

Photographer Angie Smith opens a window into the lives of some of the thousands of refugees from around the world who now call themselves “Idahoans” with intimate portraits from her project “Stronger Shines The Light Inside.” Los-Angeles based Smith has spent two years in Idaho chronicling the lives of refugees. She shared some of her photos and their accompanying stories with 500 Pens.

Khamisa, with her children, is from Sudan.
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Photo by Angie Smith

“Life on the camp is very hard. If you’re someone who doesn’t have hope and you don’t believe that there is God then definitely you can’t stay. During those days there was too much killing going on. The local people would come at night with guns, start shooting people, killing — at times they won’t take anything, they will just come, they kill you and they go.”

“My kids are the ones who keep me going. If I can see them laughing every day, I don’t think of anything else, I just feel happy, I feel thankful. Both he and my daughter have passed through a hard life. I’ve seen a hard life through them.”

Paw Lah Tse and Paw Lah Htoo are from Burma.

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Photo by Angie Smith

“We were born in Burma. We left when were thirteen because of persecution. The Burmese military burned down our houses. We were hiding in the jungle.”

“We were in a refugee camp in Thailand for thirteen years with our father and our brother. Our mother passed away when we were six years old. She was sick, we could not prevent it from getting worse.”

“Life in the camp was hard because you cannot go outside of the camp. And the food they were giving to us was decreasing. We were hungry sometimes. There is no way of making money and buy food, so it was hard.”

“When we found out we were coming here we were happy, and at the same time we were worried because we didn’t know the language and the environment and the culture.”

Ali is from Iraq and Hesham is from Syria.

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Ali: “I am from Iraq. When I have fighting in my country, I go to Syria for eight years, and in Syria, they have fighting too, like in Iraq. And I go to Turkey, I stay like year and a half then I come to the U.S.”

“I remember a lot. I saw a lot, killing people, people run away, people die. Yes, friends, my friends. Lots. I saw them die and I run away because they want to kill me too. I was in the street, I was walking and they shoot us and they run. Another person died. I was fourteen years old. That happened many times, but I was with my family. When we had to change the place, it was very bad. When we moved they tried to kill us.”

“Sometimes it makes me angry. Sometimes I stay quiet. I didn’t talk about it with my family because I don’t want them to feel bad. I want to make everyone feel happy. I want to forget, I am trying. I want to make friends, good friends. Like friends I lost in Syria.”

Hesham: “I have hard memories. The war start and they start demolishing my home in my country. And they took my dad. They took him to jail for two days but he didn’t do anything. He went to the work, everyone in my city they told him ‘don’t go today,’ but he went to the work and when he got there, they took him.”

“We learn a lot from American, like when they feel sadness, they do a sport, they go to the parks. They do anything to forget the sadness and we do the same thing with them. Every time when we see American, we see a smile on their face—that makes us relax. When you see American here, he say ‘Welcome,’ he say ‘Have a good day for you.’ This word make you relax.”

Muga is from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Photo by Angie Smith

“I left the Congo when I was five years old and we moved to Rwanda. That’s where we lived for seven years before we came here. You don’t just expect to wake up in the morning and still be alive. Some people will be sleeping and you wake up the next morning and they are gone. Or they might be sleeping and in the middle of the night, fires all over their house. It was not a safe place at all. Hunger was all over, people killing each other.”

“When I got here, everything was really different from what I experienced in Africa… The language was the most difficult. We had to go to doctors appointments and we didn’t have transportation. I mean, we had to be there but when you don’t have transportation— I mean, there was a bus but if we don’t know how to use it, we can’t get there. We started getting used to providing for ourselves and not relying on the neighbors. We thanked them and realized we can’t depend on them so we provided for ourselves and got used to things we didn’t know.”

 Abdullah is from Iraq.

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Photo by Angie Smith

“I don’t remember not feeling scared. First time I felt real fear was in Baghdad when we were moving with my family, we were walking to the bus to move to another city. I turned around and looked back at our city. The whole place was dark and the end of the sky you could see the sky turn red and yellow because of fire and explosions.”

“The year before I moved here there was no money, no safety. In the last year my dad always pretended that he wasn’t hungry but it was because he didn’t want to finish the food. We couldn’t afford water. Here when somebody gets bullied, they’re bullied about their religion, they’re bullied about their color — back there would they bully me about how we lost the war, how we are poor.”

“I feel like I still have to settle down, be more part of the community, and it’s just a matter of time. I’m probably going to college and after that I’m probably going to do journalism or be a doctor, then people will understand it doesn’t matter where this person is from.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257About Angie Smith: After graduating from Bard College, photographer Angie Smith moved to New York City and worked in the photo departments of several magazines. She is based in Los Angeles in between travel assignments and teaching workshops for National Geographic around the world.

Copyright © 500 Pens. 

Judy Shepard Has Been Fighting Hate For 20 Years Because ‘Giving Up Is Not An Option’

By Katie Mgongolwa

In a scenario that haunts every parent, Judy and Dennis Shepard’s 21-year-old son was murdered in 1998 in an anti-gay hate crime. His name — Matthew Shepard — came to symbolize the very real danger that LGBTQ people face each day in America. Twenty years later, in a time when hate crimes are increasingly common, there is a lot to learn from the Shepards’ ability to turn grief into action. The work they have carried on through the foundation they began to honor their son has changed history, expanding hate crime laws in the United States to include those motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity.

The roots of the Matthew Shepard Foundation began when Matthew was still in the hospital. People all over the country sent the family emails and cards, and many asked the Shepards to use the spotlight suddenly thrust upon them to shed light on the issues LGBTQ families were facing. “[People asked] us to take this opportunity when we had a voice to let people see a family accepting their child who happens to be gay, and loving them like all the rest of their children; that there was really no difference,” Ms. Shepard said.

While Matthew was violently taken from his parents, other families still had the choice to keep their children in their lives. “We loved Matt. There was never any question that he would not be part of our family because he happened to be gay. It was just who he was,” said his mother. “So that’s how our voices started out. That’s how we wanted to use our voices. We sort of felt we owed it to Matt to make his friends’ lives better.”

“We certainly didn’t think that 20 years later we’d still be doing this — that Matt’s name would still be associated with the movement, with hate crime, with progressing LGBTQ equality,” Ms. Shepard said. “But Matt’s story seems to be speaking to everybody, so we are still here. The programming has changed. The focus of the foundation has changed over the years. Right now it definitely seems to be hate crimes, hate speech, bullying, those kinds of awful things we thought we were leaving behind.”

The Shepards’ campaign for tolerance has met persistent opposition, but they have remained tenacious. For example, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has worked to get anti-bullying programs that include LGBTQ rights into public schools. “Some parents in some parts of the country are just not wanting to include gay kids in their anti-bullying programs,” Ms. Shepard explained. “They don’t understand how horrifyingly damaging it is to be bullied on a regular basis.”

In addition, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has been focusing its efforts on hate crime conferences that educate law enforcement and NGOs, informing groups about what hate crime legislation is and how vital reporting the crimes is. “It’s extremely important that people report and that law enforcement knows what to do with it and how to identify it,” said Ms. Shepard. “If [hate crimes] aren’t investigated, folks who are inclined to do them know nothing is going to happen to them; it’s consequence-free.”

Being a tireless advocate has meant encountering both political leaders and everyday community members with different points of view, but Ms. Shepard embraces this. “I do feel like we’ve made progress, and we’ve made it in a really important way: changing hearts and minds at a grassroots level,” she said. “When I first started speaking to college audiences, I could see their fear and their trepidation about their futures. I don’t think they felt any hope. What has happened since this is, indeed, hope.”

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, changing federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by bias against a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Since the legislation passed in 2009, the Justice Department has charged nearly 300 defendants for hate crimes under multiple statutes. “Without the Obama administration, I think we would still be treading water, trying to survive. He advanced us tremendously,” said Ms. Shepard. “Everyone in his administration totally got it; they understood. Not just about the gay community… about everybody, all the folks feeling marginalized.”  

According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, hate crimes in the United States were up by 20 percent in 2016. And the upward trend continued in 2017. The same study showed another 20 percent increase in hate crimes this past year. To top it off, current leaders like Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are famously anti-gay rights and anti-marriage equality.

As a U.S. senator, Sessions consistently opposed pro-LGBTQ legislation and, specifically, spoke out against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on the Senate floor. And this past October, a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer revealed that while he was having a conversation about the Supreme Court and LGBTQ rights, Donald Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!”

“Our current administration isn’t concerned with human rights or civil rights, not the least bit. They want to take us back. I’m very concerned for marginalized folks who are again being targeted by Americans who don’t want them to succeed or even be around,” said Ms. Shepard, who plans to continue trying to work with schools, educating law enforcement, and advocating for hate crime reporting in the next year.

Over the last two decades, Judy Shepard has been teaching the power of loud hope, of working to create a world that is safer and kinder for the next generation. “If we make respect for everybody a primary part of education, we could advance moving beyond the ignorance that causes hate crimes. Because I think a lot of hate speech comes from ignorance. They don’t understand the differences in people, and they fear them; and that leads to anger and ultimately hate and sometimes violence,” said Ms. Shepard.

“Giving up is not an option. We may worship different, love different, dress different, live in different neighborhoods,” she said. “We are, at the core, looking for the same things. And why wouldn’t you want to help each other do that? I’m hopeful it’s going to happen. I’m hopeful.”

 

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Katie Mgongolwa is a high school English and writing teacher in Durham, North Carolina.

Photo courtesy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Copyright © 500 Pens. January 2018.

 

The Food Bank In Kansas That Offers More Than Meals

By Susan Hoffmann
Photos by Dwight Hilpman

After Christmas one year, a food bank in Lawrence, Kansas, received an unexpected phone call. Local trash collectors reported finding frozen turkeys, the ones placed in holiday food baskets, tossed in the trash.

The food bank, Just Food, surveyed their clients to find out why. It turned out that there wasn’t one answer, but many:

Some clients didn’t have big enough ovens or ovens at all. Some didn’t know how to thaw a frozen turkey. Others didn’t have refrigerators or pans that were big enough to roast turkeys.

Food wasn’t the problem here. Cooking it was. 

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In 2016, nearly 17 percent of Douglas County residents needed food assistance. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

Working with a local chef, Rick Martin, Just Food developed a program called “Just Cook.” Chef Martin was ideally suited to create the program. He grew up in a low-income family and often prepared meals when his mother worked late. She taught him what he now teaches clients: how to make a healthy meal with inexpensive yet nutritious ingredients.

Just Food clients can enroll in their cooking classes, free of charge. And, if they want to grow their own food, they can lease a garden plot outside the pantry at no cost as well. That program, “Just Grow,” matches a master gardener with clients to plan a successful garden. 

One program often leads to another, and after setting up the first garden plots, Just Food found land across the river in North Lawrence to set up what Elizabeth Keever, the executive director of the nonprofit, calls an “incubator farm” on an acre of land. Clients who want to farm for a living can start here. Last year one particular client enjoyed such a successful year at the Farmer’s Market that “for next year,” Keever said, “he’s signed a contract with a local restaurant to be the sole grower for the products that they like.”

Just Food is a volunteer-based nonprofit, funded almost entirely by local donations. Last year, 700 volunteers donated 18,000 hours. Keever’s small staff of four paid employees is the engine behind their success. “The role of the paid staff is to figure out how to leverage manpower,” she said. One person brings in volunteers. Another focuses on food acquisition. Just Food increased their donated food by over 400 percent when a paid staff member was hired to oversee that program.

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Working with farmers and local groceries, Just Food has used a successful food recovery program to collect and quickly distribute fresh food to their clients. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

Much of this food is collected through a food recovery program. “It’s widely known,” Keever said, “that nationwide, 40 percent of food is thrown away.” It’s tossed out by grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and farms. Just Food works with local businesses to explain how long food is good, even when it’s past the “sell-by” date. That food is now being donated to Just Food, upwards of 2,500 pounds a day. 

Because of its small size, Just Food can quickly turn around the food, meaning their clients can shop for fresh produce, whole-grain breads, milk, and meat most days of the week. And next to these products, shoppers may find fruits and vegetables donated by local farms. “A farmer down the road has my cell phone number,” Keever said, “and will call me if his sweet potatoes need to be picked.”

When Just Food formed, less than ten years ago, it had a singular goal of collecting and distributing food to low-income residents in Douglas County, which is home to family farms, small communities and the sprawling campus of the University of Kansas. Out of this diversity—both of needs and community support—Just Food has become a local hub of ideas on how to fight hunger through education, better access to nutritious food, and work opportunities. Their growth hasn’t been without setbacks. One appeared in 2016, and not from a food-related problem.

A former director, Jeremy Farmer, was charged that year with embezzling funds from Just Food; he was later convicted and sentenced. Just Food fought to recover from this blow, to raise funds to cover their losses and rebuild the community’s trust. 

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Executive Director Elizabeth Keever and a staff member check inventory of kitchen equipment. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

Through it all, Chef Martin has remained a loyal supporter of Just Food. Since he first developed Just Cook in 2012, he has trained teachers and occasionally teaches a course himself. At Thanksgiving, he shows clients how to cook the ingredients in their holiday food boxes—including that frozen turkey.

Lately, Martin has found a new point of intersection between the goals of Just Food and the needs of local restaurants, one of which is his award-winning Limestone Pizza Kitchen Bar. Working in a university town, restaurant owners struggle with training and keeping employees, many of whom are students.

“Rick came to us with an idea,” said Keever. “He said, ‘I bet you have a lot of people that you serve who need a second chance at a career.’” A new program called KitchenWorks emerged. Now in its pilot phase, the five-day program trains people to get jobs in the culinary industry. Students receive a certificate of employment eligibility at the end of the course. Two students in the first class found jobs in local restaurants.

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Students in Chef Martin’s class taste food they prepared. Photo by Dwight Hilpman.

On a rainy fall afternoon, Chef Martin met with students in the second class. “Coming through!” one student shouted, using the heads-up term to alert others that he was moving across the kitchen. The students were learning how to brown meat that day. “Nicely done!” Chef Martin said to Len Wright, admiring the caramelized crust he’d created on the pork chop, still sizzling in the skillet.

“You can see the rewards,” Wright said of his cooking, adding that he’s always enjoyed cooking for his friends and family. “Now I can take my skills into the community.”

This is what food justice looks like in Lawrence, Kansas. “We don’t want to just feed the line,” explained Keever. “We want to end it.”

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Susan Hoffmann lives in California, where she writes personal essays inspired by her family. She has retired from a long career in art museum education, having written educational materials and taught classes for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She also wrote promotional materials for the California Institute of Technology and the Art Center College of Design, where she taught courses on modern art. Hoffmann’s work has been published by Literary Mama and Gravel; her essay “A Boy Like Mine” was a finalist in the Tenth Glass Woman Prize. She recently launched a blog inspired by letters her grandfather wrote home 100 years ago, during his service in World War 1: ww1betweenthelines.com.

Dwight Hilpman of Creative Images Photography has been capturing beautiful images with clarity, precision and an artistic touch in Lawrence, Kansas for the last 30 years. 
Cover photo: Chef Rick Martin provides tips on plating to a culinary student. By Dwight Hilpman.

Copyright © 500 Pens. January 2018