3, 2, 1…2018, You’re Done!

Alright, 2018. As Nicole Byers would say, “ya done!” I think it’s difficult to say whether this year was “good” because there were some direly terrible, awful moments. And, I feel thankful for several people and communities that worked against all odds and supported one another. Despite the heartbreaking news we encounter every day, I do want to shout out the people that made good happen. Think about the activists, writers, teachers, artists, religious leaders, small business owners, athletes, entertainers, and others who took the time to teach and to listen. Especially people of color, women, queer and trans folx, disabled folx, immigrants, and folx whose native language is not English. To everyone who truly learned from their mistakes, that’s awesome.

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I saw so many awesome achievements and fearless actions, including a friend’s recent trip to the border to protest. Two close friends got engaged and another friend took a backpack to travel the world. Another friend finished a masters degree and got a sick job. And another started teaching Spanish and has been asked several times to be a model teacher for others just starting. My students improved their writing and one won a national championship. Scholars I admire wrote books that called out white supremacy, racism and sexism through their work and encouraged me to do the same. I witnessed pain, anger, frustration, loss, and the subsequent fight to find some joy despite it all.

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Before I offer my (partial) list of yays and face palms and resolutions, I want to reflect on one thing. I’ve seen many end of the year messages and posts that suggest we should cut people out of our lives who are toxic, that we must let go of those who are not ready to love us, and that those who cannot appreciate us for our flaws need to go home. I completely agree with these messages, and I wonder how, in this new year, we can hold more accountability for ourselves too. I struggled- I mean STRUGGLED- this year with balancing how to hold space for a friend or colleague or family member who needed to dump their emotions and saying no to holding that space because I didn’t have the capacity. How do we work through our own stuff while utilizing our support networks without emotionally dumping? This year I want to explore accountability of emotions. I think through my own work, I can be a better support and resource for my people.

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Yays:

-Met so many amazing people working to end the suffering of others

-Finished my first year in a PhD program when I said so many times I couldn’t

-Received three grants and launched Golden State Sacred, our project documenting the religious history of California

-Finished a tough mudder

-Presented for the first time at several conferences- and most importantly, lived into the nerves!

-Saw my body as strong and deserving, rather than overweight and lacking

-Got to be on an awesome podcast with one of my academic and activist heroes, and realized that I value a commitment to learning and listening perhaps more than anything

-Published a short story, an article, and a few contributions to publications I really believe in

-Learned so much about my home state through the graciousness of communities and individuals who helped me

-Helped create a public history project that brought scholars, artists and activists together

-Spent time with my family and my best friends, even if it meant I stayed up real late finishing my work to be at the Coliseum or Dodger Stadium

-Took student feedback seriously and improved my teaching (and got really lovely student reviews)

-Asked for help when I needed it (and definitely need to keep working on this one)

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Face Palms (not really. But I think being vulnerable and sharing mistakes is really helpful):

-Exhibited stubborn behavior when I should have listened and acknowledged that my actions were harmful, especially as a white woman

-Stayed silent when I needed to speak out

-Took my frustration out on baristas and other workers when it was entirely not their fault my day was not going the way I wanted

-Failed to tell my therapist a few things right away because I felt shame

-Missed opportunities to communicate with people I don’t get to see or talk to every day (forgetting to text back)

-Let guilt guide my actions instead of letting go and stating my needs

-Lived into the narrative that I am not smart enough or qualified for academia because my path is different

-Allowed the patriarchy to get me down

 

My Resolutions:

-Exhibit ally behavior for indigenous and disabled individuals and communities and appreciate when someone takes the time to teach me.

-Write fearlessly.

-Tell people when I don’t have emotional capacity to hold space (and, recognize my own issues in asking for space).

-Treat my body as a gift that deserves care- instead of working out as punishment, treating working out as a gift of time, stress relief and celebration.

-Communicate more directly (even if it seems mean).

-Put my body and words on the line for the communities that do not hold the privilege I do.

-Build relationships without using English as a medium.

-Keep baking.

-Tell my friends and family when they do something fantastic.

Happy New Year, y’all! May the internet continue to save us in humor and real talk.

 

 

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Dumping

I saw a great Tweet recently. It really captured something I have been struggling with for the past year or so. The Tweet said (and I paraphrase): it’s fine to process with friends sometimes, and to listen when a friend is in need. However, a friend is not a therapist, and certainly doesn’t get paid to be one. In a nutshell, don’t dump too much emotional baggage on people- it’s not their responsibility, and it can be quite taxing.

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Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

There are of course layers to this- therapy is expensive. It isn’t accessible to everyone, to most. Therapy doesn’t work for all, and a majority of therapists are white and cisgender, which is important to note because people of color and trans folx especially experience much more difficulty accessing a good therapist if they have the resources in the first place. That is not to say therapists must share all life experiences with their patients, but it is to say therapists are people and have limits.

What I am struggling with is taking on the emotional dump for a particular group of people- cishet white men. I am struggling because it is my burden and I want to own that. At the same time, I find some of their “confidential” complaints problematic. Further, when confronting the problems, the response I receive is often one of outrage and gas lighting.  As in, “I just wanted to complain, I don’t need advice,” or “You’re not listening, you’re being condescending.” Their complaints are about a felt “oppression” because of who they are. While I can’t fight feelings, I can correct the false narratives that lead to these feelings- one of these narratives is that “white people aren’t given positions of power anymore.” So, what is the balance between listening to a fellow white person when they absolutely should not be airing these unfounded grievances on people of color, and struggling against the exhaustion of fighting this emotional labor handed off to women and non-men?

Giving up is not an option, because that would invite two different scenarios. The first is perceived agreement- allowing these bullshit complains to seem valid just solidifies their position of unchecked privilege. Ignoring them and demanding they take their problems elsewhere is also unhelpful, because then someone else is burdened. I’m working on developing more skills to confront without feeling emotionally wrecked after a thirty minute conversation, but this question interests me.

I think beyond working on stamina skills there is a fundamental point of view that needs to change. It is very related to this popular quote that has taken 1000 iterations, something like “Equality feels like oppression when you’re in a position of privilege.” The reality is, as we work toward equity and eventually liberation, privilege needs to be dismantled. It’s ok to be passed over for a job despite having the proper qualifications. It’s ok to not have the mic or be the face of an office or a movement. The reality still is that white folx will demand positions of power and more air time, and continue to espouse a narrative that allows us to claim oppression. Another reality is that white men will continue to dump these feelings on non-men unless other men learn how to listen and hold each other accountable. I think the most dangerous position is to be in one without introspection.

Don’t Overreact to Little Things

I’m definitely not saying anything in this post that has not been said before. It’s been said many times, it’s been said recently, it’s definitely been said today. Like five minutes ago. Because most likely, someone didn’t listen. And not listening meant upholding patriarchy and continuing to allow dehumanization and violence toward women. Toward womxn. Toward survivors and victims. I’ve heard excuse after excuse and experienced literal yelling over social media. I’ve gotten dismissive, unthoughtful responses like, “there is no evidence, so how can we know who is telling the truth?” or “think about his situation and how hard this is for him.” Consider: why would someone lie about trauma- especially knowing full well the absolute storm of disgusting responses you will receive?

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Photo by Evan Brockett on Unsplash

On the other hand, the sarcasm and sass on the internet gives me just a little bit more life. “Maybe he should smile more. Maybe he shouldn’t have worn that and he wouldn’t be accused.” ABSOLUTE GOLD. It makes me laugh so hard because it hits so directly on what women have been saying over and over in so many intelligent, patient, “civil” ways (I hate that word). It’s funny because it sounds SO stupid! And yet- advocating for the rights and innocence of someone who commits assault is SO stupid. And it is happening every minute.

So why won’t they listen?

I’m going to share a story that is not meant to equate experiences with race and gender or experience of violence. This is only to illuminate a point. I remember, before engaging in racial justice and what we usually call “diversity” work how defensive I could feel when someone called me out. Especially if they used the term “racist.” Because even though no one told me that I, as an entire human, was a racist, I associated racist behavior with being a racist, which I knew to be very bad. I did not want to be a very bad person, so I shut down a few times. I got defensive and didn’t listen or learn anything. And that was a shame, because the folx telling me truth were offering a huge gift- a gift they had no responsibility to give, that probably contributed further to baggage and eliminated a potential future ally. That is- I eliminated myself from that, and caused harm. I knew I was complicit. I didn’t want to admit it.

This is aimed not so much at abusers and perpetrators- y’all can honestly rot for all I care- this is for the people who are defending the abusers and perpetrators. The people who “can’t believe her without evidence.” The folx who want to cite some completely false statistics that more women and womxn are lying about assault now so they’re ruining other “real” survivors experiences by creating a girl-who-cried-wolf-scenario. This behavior is why interrupting and catcalling and booty calls and excusing terrible behavior and assault and rape happen ALL THE TIME. This is perpetuating rape culture. It’s not only excusing the event but denying any agency when someone bravely comes forward. I want to emphasize this because I honestly had a stronger reaction to 45 mocking someone who did the best she could to tell her story than a rapist acting like an angry child. Perpetuating allows behavior to continue. Perpetuating= complicity. It’s like telling someone’s fortune, except it’s invoking future trauma.

So. I’m coming out strong to say that if you tell me your story of trauma and survival, I believe you. Thank you to those who listened to and believed me. I am working on checking my own actions that perpetuate.

Golden State Sacred!

The day after something big feels a little eerie. “I’m definitely supposed to be somewhere, but I can’t remember where,” entered my mind several times this past Friday. The mobile exhibit that I spent the last year developing and growing has finally launched. On Thursday evening, we hosted a reception to reveal the objects, artifacts, photographs, and stories that only begin to touch on the sacred history of California. It felt great to welcome so many folx to an iconic Los Angeles space: the first synagogue in Los Angeles, the host to the Women’s Mosque of America, and a place of intersection for faith, art, music and community (Pico Union Project, shout out!).

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Sneak peak of GSS before the crowd

This week I’m cheating a little bit by posting the transcript of my opening remarks for the exhibit for a few reasons, not the least of which is, I didn’t get to writing a regular post last week. More importantly though, I believe in this project because the purpose is similar to this blog, which is to lift up stories of perseverance and commitment despite marginalization and oppression in the world. I am so thankful to everyone that came, ate, observed and interacted, asked questions, offered feedback, and met someone new.

Hey Friends. Thank you for coming out to Downtown LA on a warm August night during California’s inaugural Interfaith Awareness Week. It’s really wonderful to see so many familiar faces, and equally great to see new friends. I’d like to give you a brief picture of the vision for Golden State Sacred: A mobile exhibit dedicated to California’s sacred history. Before anything, I want to acknowledge and thank the Tataviam and San Gabrieleno tribes who are the original stewards of this land, and whose land we occupy here. A note about the food we are enjoying tonight- X’tiosu is a Oaxacan-Middle Eastern fusion restaurant in Boyle Heights, started by two brothers who migrated to California speaking no English or Spanish. X’tiosu means “thank you” in Zapotec, one of the many indigenous languages spoken in the Oaxacan region. Hello Cake Girl is a practically all vegan and gluten free bakery also located in Boyle Heights.

I love California. Though I have spent almost half of my life living outside the Golden State, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and believe me, it doesn’t get much better than living an hour from the beach, the mountains, sports matches, and the best of every cuisine you can imagine. So when Reverend Jim Burklo, whose office is full of fascinating artifacts, suggested how cool it would be to start an interfaith museum, I thought “sure, that would be cool.” When he mentioned that someone told him the concept was impossible, I knew we had to pursue it. Golden State Sacred is an un-museum, in a way. The objects you see here represent only a tiny amount of our history. Through this project, we hoped to raise awareness of the stories of sacred communities that often go unheard, or perhaps have been erased. These communities have all contributed to social, political, and public life here in alta California- through immigration, innovation, and interfaith cooperation.

The exhibit challenges two main ideas: first, that history is static and in the past, and second, what we usually mean by “religion.” Golden State Sacred is never finished- as we continue to collect stories and artifacts, the exhibit grows richer. The exhibit also takes on the presence of its location. For example, tonight we gather in the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles. As a true interfaith community center, this space hosted the first Women’s Mosque in America and consistently welcomes faith-based celebrations, art installations, music, and other community building activities. This space matters to our sacred history. We might not say that absolutely anything is religion, but what can we include when we consider ritual, community, commitment, divine images and names, culture, race, gender, and so many other intersections?

Some of this history should make us deeply uncomfortable. As you’ll see, religion is embedded in violence and oppression, from enslavement to internment to state-sanctioned surveillance. It is essential to engage with these truths, often ignored or avoided, because the pursuit of justice requires a deep understanding of past injustices contributing to current ones. Golden State Sacred is a balancing act- how do we engage with our own communities in ways that promote interfaith cooperation by both celebrating those before us and recognizing the wrongs committed?

Finally, and most important, some notes of gratitude. To the Interfaith Youth Core, the Germanacos family, the Stanford Office for Community Engagement, and the most beloved USC Office of Religious Life, thank you for both resource and moral support. I offer the most profound gratitude to the individuals and communities who shared their time, their stories, and their objects with us. Thank you to my family for dealing with a mess of objects and book stands and tablecloths and glitter in the living room. Many folks in this room offered their wisdom, including obscure sports chants like “Och Tamale” from the University of Redlands. Finally, though I do not mean to single anyone out, there is someone who has been with this project since its unique inception- this person designed the logo on all the materials, worked to make the exhibit aesthetically pleasing, and most of all spent many late nights talking through everything from social media to color schemes to sharing a mutual love for Jackie Robinson. Jose, thank you for never giving up.

Gold’s Food

Jonathan Gold, iconic Los Angeles food writer, passed away on Saturday. Just as I heard the news, I was shoving a donut in my face and enjoying local art in pleasant summer evening air.

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LA-inspired cupcakes: jamaica-lime, brown butter peach, michelada

I felt particularly sad about Gold dying. It’s not as if I knew him personally, or even saw him often on television. I did pour through his books and reviews of restaurants. When the food truck craze hit, I appreciated that Gold encouraged eaters to frequent the trucks started and owned by immigrants and children of immigrants. He challenged the whole notion of “exotic” food, suggesting instead that Los Angeles is home to traditions and cultures that often center around food. Instead of writing “critically,” Gold pointed us to the “unknown” eateries around the city that make me homesick when I’m away for too long.

As I have been researching and interviewing for the mobile exhibit project Golden State Sacred (you can follow @goldenstatesacred on Instagram, shameless plug), my goal remains the same even as the design of the exhibit shifts. Los Angeles is a global city of untold stories. My hope was to begin collecting these stories and stewarding them through the objects on display. So far, I have been so lucky to meet people gracious enough to share their stories with me, even beyond their faith. What is amazing to me is how everyone makes a way here, somehow.

We have much work to do. The cost of living in California is beyond atrocious. Despite what seems like a new luxury apartment building going up every day in the greater Los Angeles area, affordable housing is dire. As a surgical resident, my sister saw her fair share of addiction and substance abuse. While these should not be political bargaining chips and have been used as such in the past, we cannot deny that people suffer. We cannot deny that California is as much a police state as every other, and people of color experience racism and different kinds of violence every day. This state is soaked with the blood of California Indians who worked through forced labor to build the now prized missions. It is stained with the chain link fences that caged American citizens. It is responsible for the murder of unarmed black bodies and the exclusion of human beings based on alleged legal documentation.

The stories that I have collected- as Gold collected through food and dining- give me reason to confront the violence and erasure that religion has caused on this stolen land. Saturday was a day of mourning for the children who have been separated- it was, at the same time, a celebration of young people that organized and led the action in downtown Los Angeles. I hope to keep the stories alive because they deserve honor and remembrance in the years to come. Just as Gold left glamour and ritz to the other food critics, I want to make myself uncomfortable enough to keep learning every day.

Home and Home

After an all-too-indulgent weekend, I climbed into a Lyft at San Jose Airport, headed back to my apartment in Palo Alto.

“Headed home?”

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Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

I stumbled a little. “I’m…both going home and coming from home,” I finally mustered. That morning, my mom raced to Burbank airport in rush hour traffic. I boarded exactly twelve minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off. As we drifted up and over the San Gabriel mountains and up the coast, the landscape reminded me: this is home.

This past week I finished my first year of graduate school. Admittedly, it was more emotional than I imagined it would be. I didn’t turn in the last paper feeling like the stress was barely beginning because the grade is what matters. Letting go felt like permission to celebrate an accomplishment- staying in the room when things got rough. After I turned in the paper, I turned on the Dodger game, threw some clothes in a suitcase, and started a memoir I’ve been hoping to read all year. I kept telling myself it was ok to enjoy a few hours of no commitment.

What does “home” have to do with the PhD program? I could be studying anywhere, but I’m back in California like I hoped. That same night I finished, a student who will start the program in the fall sent me a message. “You finished! What is your biggest piece of advice to a first year?”

Part of me wanted to say, “You have no idea what you’re getting in to. Even if you have a Master’s Degree, you have no idea what kind of caliber work is expected. And how many hours a day you’ll spend reading, or preparing, or formulating a single sentence.” But I didn’t say that, because what use would that have been to me nine months ago? I probably would have cried a little and moved on without any real wisdom. So instead, I said what I truly wished someone had told me before I started, which is how lonely this work can be. This might sound obvious- you read and write all day? Of course these activities are done solo. But the detachment from a community can deeply affect even the quality of our work.

It was really the writing class in the winter quarter this year that helped me expand my purview of “home.” As the weeks went by and we joked about how #transformed our writing would be by the end of the class, I started feeling like maybe this was something I could do. Maybe I could even be good at it. That feeling came from the work of building community based on appreciative critique (though some days, critiques escalated to strong words) and well, internet memes. The point is, I began to see how crucial it is to involve others in every step of my thinking.

I remember the day I walked into our writing professor’s office. “This isn’t the paper I want to write,” I confessed. “I really want to write about how patriarchal and white interfaith dialogue spaces are, and how I think we can do better.” She jumped from her chair and handed me three books. “It’s like you’re talking to three different fields,” she said. “This could be helpful to so many people.” At the end of the day, I’m carrying on in the long nights of reading and early writing sessions because I do want my work to be helpful. Feeling at home means I talk to the people for whom it will be useful and finding my voice in the meantime.

Questions

Hypothetical Question.

You’re a professor, a teacher, an instructor, a TA…anyone with some power to craft a syllabus or introduce material you haven’t written for the purposes of learning. That’s a big net, but this is a big problem. Let’s say (like me) you’re developing a World Religions syllabus. You’re really into it- So many great readings! An interesting assignment! Field Trips! Guest speakers! Literally, you cannot wait to teach this class because you’ve curated the entire semester down to a note and the students will be AMAZED. Ok. Here’s the problem: you find out one of your most crucial readings, one written by a foremost scholar in the field, has been arrested for something icky. I’m not picking one thing because this isn’t just a “one instance” issue. I’m asking what we do. Because so far, everyone I have spoken with rightfully thinks long and hard before answering. No one has really offered an answer.

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Photo by Mike Ko on Unsplash

I do not have an answer either. My first reaction? Take it off the syllabus, take it off websites, get rid of it. Poof, gone. That’s an option. My friends and colleagues have responded with thoughtful questions to this idea:

-What if the reading really is that crucial? I ask- can we differentiate who influences our students based on the quality of their work, or more likely the level of their fame? And isn’t any press good press- won’t students go looking for this source when they learn the scandal?

-What if the crime really has nothing to do with the scholarship? Someone stealing cars could definitely still write an excellent history of Early Christians. I ask- does any part of our lives have no bearing whatsoever on our work? Can we really separate ourselves from our research?

-What if the person admitted the crime, served their time, and apologized? What if they really feel sorry? I ask- is it good to find redemption in people? Do we have to forgive if someone has been harmed? Does an apology change trauma that someone faces every day? (No. That’s a no.)

-We need to know the identity of this person. Maybe they aren’t guilty. If you start finding dirt on one person, how far will it go? No one is perfect. I ask- how should we view law and the justice system in this conversation? Can we trust that people who “do bad things” will get in trouble for it? (That’s also a big fat NO.)

I have been grappling with these questions in the midst of deep reflection on the #MeToo Movement. About a year and a half ago, I wrote my #MeToo story. To date, it is the most read story on this site. We cannot ever downplay the widespread violence on women that happens every single day because we live in a culture where rape is normative and sometimes even celebrated. This is where my initial reaction- tear it all down!- gets tricky.

I sit in the “remove” camp still. If anything, I believe my role is to be upfront with my students about why they will not read the best article on “X” subject. I think in order to stop violence against women and others, the change in resources should be as widespread as the culture that allows the President of the United States to laugh about sexual assault. In order to change normativity, that’s what it will take. In closing, I do think we need to consider that we humans, no matter how famous and learned and experienced we are, do our work from the wholeness of ourselves. Our research, our teaching, our careers are all influenced by who we are and who we have been. The question becomes- how do we let ourselves come in?