Sometimes I regret not playing more of a role in my nephews’ lives. My oldest nephew, John, was born the year I graduated from high school. When I was graduating from high school, I was experiencing deep depression. I felt loss from a woman I loved. I was protesting the war in Vietnam. I wanted to be a part of history. I was a horny male teenager. The depression was the most difficult of those things to understand. I remember writing letters back home in lower case to try to make them understand I was not doing well. Depression was a family characteristic. My mother and older sister have also lived with it. When you are 17 or 18 everything seems so overwhelming. The depression was about what my mind was saying about feeling empty and lonely.
Nobody who is that age is old enough to understand. If there is one thing I regret I wish I had learned to understand myself sooner. My younger brother also lived with a mental illness triggered by use of hallucinogens. I believe that I survived because of a combination of nature and nurture. James left home as a teenager and went west at a time many people were feeling alienated and wanting to get away from home. I was old enough to go to Howard University and be a part of history and the largest anti-war demonstrations in American history.
When you are young and you are struggling you have more options than I saw as a teenager. For me, the best choice after dropping out of college was the military. But when I returned to civilian life, I struggled with economic security. I heard the voices of my nephews but I was in no shape to be able to help them. Now that things seem to be different and I have gotten help I am no longer being driven by depression or mania. I am doing well. I was part of my niece’s life at an event to retire the flags last week. I cannot go back into the 1970s but I am proud to part of the present.
On July 18, 2017, I had a proud moment when I walked into a public meeting and introduced myself as the chair of black lives matter at the First Unitarian Society. Years of preparation had led me to that moment at the meeting to close the Milwaukee secure detention facility. Since I took over as chair almost 3 months ago I have been quietly, in consultation with the the black lives matter cabal, been searching for an issue where we could help to fill in the gaps and have a meaningful impact.
At the meeting of our black lives matter collaborative in June I had recommended that we join and announce our support for the coalition. But that was different from standing before this room of family members and ex prisoners and saying that I was with them. I had decided that this was the cause. We had listened to a heart felt presentation this spring about the lives of thousands of people locked away for crimeless revocations and I was moved to action.
This was a start for me and I felt welcome pronouncing my name and finding, to my surprise, some of the people in the meeting were also with our black lives matter collaborative. I am always say that you can start anywhere so we did. I am hoping that the people in the room will begin to recognize as we begin to make changes together. We have a role we can play in ending mass incarceration. I need your support.
Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people. What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive. We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.
Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.
I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.
In another step towards changing over from being an ad hoc “cabal” to a formal committee I asked for and received the names and contact information of the people who have been a part of the group. I was pleasantly surprised that there were about a dozen people. This is a testimony to Mary’s organizational skills. While she may seem like one of those flaky white liberals just running around doing thins, the fact is she helped create some pretty impressive events. The question is, what to do with all of the energy that she has helped create? Where does it go?
I will be busy sending out an email informing people of the changeover and and finding a date for our first meeting. Next week I will be attending the my first meeting of the social justice council as the chair of the new black lives committee. Once more into the breach.
This post is to announce that I am returning to leadership within Unitarian Universalism. Many years ago I chaired the racial justice committee. That committee promoted diversity, organized a Kwanzaa event, organized a drum circle and tried to change the church culture. Unfortunately, the committee seemed to attract the same core group of people. I underwent a personal transformation that led to a divorce, and the development of a whole new career as a certified peer specialist. There were years in which I was barely active.
The committee was dissolved but in recent years new people have entered the church with a different set of ideas. One person in particular Mary Devitt has been a catalyst under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Mary has involved the First Unitarians in several events, most recently organizing a showing of a film about the 53206 neighborhood, which focused on the impact of mass incarceration on the low income community. She was also in the campaigns to change police practices after the killings of black men by police in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Her most recent accomplishment was a workshop on racial justice at Alverno College that featured Chris Crass, a speaker from Kentucky. Over 350 people attended the event which was organized with a remarkable coalition.
Mary has been a sort of one woman committee within the church which lead to her being given a designation as a change agent. At the same time Mary recognized that it was problematic for her to be in charge of black lives matter. She has what she calls her “cabal” that she can pull together on an ad hoc basis to achieve goals. However, that could easily lead to burn out. So we began a conversation this week about my leading a transformation of the black lives matter cabal into a committee to carry on the things she has started.
I have agreed to take this on at a time of turmoil within the Unitarian Universalist movement. There is more happening every day and it demands that someone from Milwaukee help give direction. The UU is a place where I feel comfortable sometimes. When my allies aren’t present and people ask me, where have I been, I feel like becoming invisible. That needs to change. A lot needs to change. Let the drum speak.
One of the oddest parts of the quality improvement exercise I attended today was something called Catapult. Each table received a package with pencils, scotch tape, paper clips, a spoon and several life savers. We were given 30 minutes to create a small catapult that would be able to fling a life saver into the air. Our table had several people including me, who didn’t know what we were doing. The project was designed to encourage teamwork and creativity and the ability to try out an idea, modify it and try it again. Within 5 minutes, the people in the tables on both sides of us had flung lifesavers at us in what seemed like a shooting war.
The winning team flung their lifesavers 20 feet. Not to be outdone, on our third catapult model, we managed to fling ours about 5 inches. Obviously our several masters degrees were wasted. We even watched a video of an 8 year old making a catapult and flinging his lifesaver 10 feet. If you need recovery, come to me. If you need a catapult, go get the kid.