I just returned home from an appointment at the Veterans Administration where I was able to reflect on my much improved life. Years ago, when I turned my life over the the VA, I was down on my luck. Today things are much better. I am feeling optimistic about life. I might be able to go to New Orleans next month for a conference. MC3, the mental health quality improvement board, sent me an email asking whether I would like to be a part of their steering committee. The Department of Health and Human Services for Milwaukee County is asking me to participate in an environmental scan to help them understand what is going on. And I am finishing a book Americanah about Nigerian refugees in America and Great Britain.
I am uncertain whether any of these things are related. I am a regular at the MC3 events and I am reasonably articulate. I participate in the small group discussions. MC3 is the group that recently nominated me for the Mental Health Board. It is possible that there is some connection between being on this steering committee and being on the board. My sister Chris would say that I am marketing myself. Let’s get this guy out there in the community.
There have been a few people who were marketed, awarded, publicized in the newspaper and magazines as knowing what there is to know about living with a mental illness and or helping those who have a mental illness. Suddenly, there might be an awareness that they need to have black men as part of these discussions. Too often, black men are the victims of the mental health system. There was a memorial recently regarding Dontre Hamilton a young black man with a mental illness who had fallen asleep in a downtown park and was killed by police. The first thing I would tell this Mental Health Board is to stop killing young black men.
When you check the staffs of agencies that are providing services such as case management you don’t find a lot of black men and yet the people who we have the most difficulty understanding are black men. Is that a surprise? So, hire some of them.
I asked a Milwaukee County worker, ask yourself, what can I do to help? She called my supervisor and told her she thought I was telling her how to do her job. Eventually, the county worker did what I was asking her to do.
The book Americanah tells about the differences between Africans in American and Britain and African-Americans. I have told my facebook friends about this and invited them to comment on the book. It was a very big seller not so long ago. The main character was a Nigerian woman who became a successful blogger. Maybe people will offer to sponsor my blog and I will not be working with people who are living with a mental illness? I seriously doubt that but perhaps something more interesting will happen. Stay tuned.
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.
I have been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee since the 1990s. Like many people, I was drawn to the many progressive things that the church members did. They were affirming the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have children. They supported the right of women to control their own bodies and led a clinic protection coalition when right wing anti abortionists threatened to close down clinics. They marched against American interventions in the affairs of other nations. And I was also drawn to what the Unitarian Universalists did not have, which was a religious creed. No one was forced to believe in the existence of god, which I never have. I have never read more than a few pages of the bible and don’t believe in any form of supreme being.
I also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation a few years ago because I found that public officials routinely brought their religious views into the lives as mayors, senators and other forms of elected office. They violated the separation of church and state. In that way I felt that they violated my rights.. I am excited when I read of ordinary heroism done not in the praise of some being I consider imaginary. I am able to nourish my friendships and work on doing good for its own sake. I am part of a struggle to help transform the Unitarians from a largely white middle class denomination to a one which welcomes people of color and affirms that my life as an African-American matters. I want to know that these are people who will have my back. That is what I believe.
I have been watching videos of a remarkable church in Washington DC the All Souls Unitarian. It is an intentionally multi ethnic multi cultural church that rocks. All Souls is a historic church that has been in forefront of struggles for civil rights. It has a staff that is a mosaic and the services, as far as I can see, are often lively. It is a welcoming place to be and I would hope that other churches would take a lesson. I have posted many of their you tube videos on my facebook page. This is the first time I have ever posted something like this about attending church!
Today I was at the First Unitarian Society at the invitation of my friend Mary, who had joined the church a few years ago with her husband John. We had seen them at a coffeehouse after an unsuccessful attempt to find the park where a black lives matter protest was being held. I searched and searched and all I could find was Ahmed Zolkowski, who was not black nor looking for a protest and only added to my general confusion.
I went home and told Liz my story and she said, let’s go to the coffeehouse. It’s cooler there and it will help your brains recovery. We left the cat home. He was texting his friends and pretty much ignoring us, anyway.
The coffeehouse was deeply air-conditioned while the outside and the rest of Wisconsin was steamy. The shock initially made me want to retreat outside but I adjusted. After a beer, here come these two ne’er do wells with beers. The people I had been searching for. They said they had marched inside a shopping mall and made people uncomfortable. Children asked their parents, what does black lives matter, mean?
We got to know each other and discovered that we had a lot of the same progressive values. In fact their personal lives suggested that they might have been the perfect couple for us to meet. And they also told me that there would be an interesting speaker at the First Unitarian Society and that subtle changes had taken place this past year that I was completely unaware of. Where did the Black Lives Matter Initiative come from, anyway?
I came away from today feeling more enlightened and wondering what I should do with this information. I have a habit of being totally present or fully gone. The church was something I had joined when I was living downtown. Now that I had moved far away, I needed more of a draw. Perhaps it is friendship. I’m not sure whether people were friendlier today but the speaker from the Unitarian Universalist Association said that the churches often aren’t very welcoming. Since I am not there to read the bible or fear god, then maybe I need a more personal connection. Knowing that there are other oddballs from my generation around protesting.
I have been noticing that some white churches post signs and organize events that proclaim Black Lives Matter. Today I was at the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee for the first time in several months and a couple I had seen during my last visit was there. It so happened that the husband is an expert on gang interventions I had heard about many years ago. His wife, who seems to be one of those people who creates a niche for herself wherever she goes, is one of a group within the Unitarian Universalists who are of a social justice ministry. In the church, she is doing Black Lives Matter events and it just so happened that today they had organized a silent witness.
I joined in representing formerly young gifted and black individuals. Most of the responses from passers by were positive. In addition, today’s donations were being shared with an organization that works with inner city youths. This is part of being allies. But how does this sound to you as a reader? How are mostly white organizations and churches witnessing? Do black lives matter to you or are you irritated by the expression? Do you yell back All Lives Matter twice as loudly? Who is it you are attempting to drown out?
Although my job is not specifically to fight racial oppression, African-Americans and other people of color with mental illness are at extremely high risk when they encounter the police. With our help, perhaps they will live longer, more productive lives. Their lives will matter, too.