Learning things the hard way so you don’t have to

In my younger years, I was terrible with boundaries. I wasn’t a sleeping border control agent. I was a diplomat contesting the need for the borders in the first place, refusing to police them as I believed openness was the right place to be. That did not work out. You cannot maintain sovereignty with open borders. You cannot maintain relationships if you do not define them, or yourself, precisely and in relationship to each other.

I spent the ensuing years erecting walls. Careful, well-thought-out walls out of impervious substances such as brick and mortar, carefully placing them where it seemed best. I posted a guard, and gave her strict rules. Initially, I was a tyrant. Lately I’ve allowed the installation of windows into the metaphoric walls. I’ve bent rules on who may access the gate if the spirit of my intentions are there. Rules can assist with this.

I created a mental “order of things” map, deciding how I would relate to others due to the nature of my relationship to them and their relationship to my husband. It works. It shone a light on my priorities and obligations and has made navigating interpersonal conflict in my social networks much simpler. I have found that disputes between people can be managed less by their righteousness of their stance, but by their position on the interdependent web of my social world.

With stronger boundaries came a habit of privacy. I am more careful about to whom I tell what. Sometimes it can even be how much of what I tell people, as if I’m releasing heavily censored press-releases. This is not an unhealthy habit: most things are not most people’s business. Why should they know? But I have to be careful to be aware of what is my carefully crafted and optimistic projection versus what is the raw experience.

Remembered this today as I told a close, trusted friend about a strange circumstance I found myself in. It is the sort of thing I’d usually black out with a sharpie, but this friend has a higher security clearance with me. He gave me great advice; turns out that he had an analogous experience.

Like anything else, good data in, good analysis out. Bad data in, bad analysis. Openness still has its rewards, though it is best a cautious endeavor.

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No More Anonymous Comments

Howdy! It is I, the writer of this sparsely updated website.

I’ve made a modification to my ad-hoc comment policy. I’ve always run the comment section as an autocrat, beholden to no one but my self. I regard this to be my personal publishing grounds, and the comments are like letters to the editor. No newspaper publishes all the ones they receive, and I feel no obligation to use my website to give space to other people in the same way I don’t feel obligated to allow anyone and everyone to stay overnight in my living room. I have also learned that if someone really does not like what you wrote, no worries, they will find you on social media and let you know what they thought.

So the first modification is that I actually put a set of expectations into writing. If you engage on this website, expect that everything goes through the moderation filter first. If it’s nasty and disrespectful, it gets deleted. That’s always been my policy (though sometimes I post them if I feel like they make the commenter look unreasonable and they used identifying information). If you engage on this website, your expectations of a speedy reply are entirely misplaced. My life is thankfully full enough that I neglect this site on a regular basis.

The second modification is that I decided I am done with publishing anonymous and pseudonymous responses. Why? Well, for one, I am not anonymous. If I wrote it, I was bold enough to attach my name to my ideas, and I would prefer to interact with those of similar courageousness. I use my real name on all my social media and I do that to hold myself accountable to my ideas. I do not tend to discuss very sensitive topics. As being published here is a privilege and not a right, I have decided that I wish to give space to those who would give me the courtesy of knowing who they are.

In practice, if you write that your name is “Jim” and your email (which I never publish) is “Jim.Kelley” at gmail.com, I will likely publish it because I know who you are. If you have “Jim” and your email is “SnailKing20003″ at gmail.com, I’ll only publish it if it includes a website or a twitter url or something else where I have a reasonable chance of identifying you if I ever met you outside the internet.

If you have a response that you are dying for me to read, but you don’t want to have it published on my website with your name, you can always email me. If I find it insightful, I might post it. I want to know who you are, and that is the bottom line. If you want to be anonymous and share an idea, sure, comment – but it won’t be published and I will not reply to it.

I’ve been writing mostly about issues relating to the city that I live in. It’s not a big city, and it is akin to a small town in how social networks go. Someone knows someone who knows your boss. (Actually, everyone knows my boss. Another story for another day.) I am well aware that because I use my real name, it’s easy to find me, and easy to follow me. As a result, this may lead to a false sense of familiarity with me, and an undue sense of entitlement for my attention. I am starting to meet people who have read something I wrote, and that’s really cool. I want to know who the ideas and questions belong to, should I ever meet you.

I appreciate my readers and glad that you drop by. If you have any questions about these new rules of engagement, feel free to comment or email me.

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Unit of Analysis: Power and Privilege Edition

Part of my day job includes giving presentations about homelessness to college students. In other words, I get to re-experience the fun part of being a college professor (sharing knowledge and engaging students) without the parts I disliked (grading papers and dealing with the bureaucracy). One of the first things that I tell students is this:

How you define a problem will define its solution.
How you define your priorities will define your problem.
How you define “success” depends on how you define the problem.

In the case of homelessness, HUD has prioritized those who have absolutely no other means for housing and created a four-tier definition: literally homeless (place not meant for human habitation or an emergency shelter), imminently homeless (will be literally homeless in less than 15 days), unaccompanied youth identified as homeless under other federal statutes, and individuals fleeing domestic violence. So if you have friends or family who can take you in for a bit, then you’re just unstably housed, not homeless, and don’t qualify for HUD-funded assistance. You won’t get included in homelessness statistics either, because as someone who is “doubled-up,” you’re not eligible, even if you are homeless in most laypeople’s minds.

Various assistance programs are funded with that definition in mind. The Housing First intervention, providing low-demand permanent housing prior to offering assistance with other therapeutic problems, defines homelessness as lacking a place to live, without worrying if the person, now housed, is otherwise considered stable by society. Success is thus defined as whether or not a client is housed, as opposed to whether or not a client is conforming to mainstream ideas of wellness and health.

This is true in other domains as well.

A side story: There’s been a lot of racial prejudice and bigotry receiving attention in Buffalo right now, as opposed to the usual circumstance of racial prejudice and bigotry being ignored. Recently someone threw a rock, with a slur-laden note, through the window of a mixed-race family in Kaisertown. There is a controversy related to renaming Squaw Island to Unity, after people rejecting using the Seneca name pre-colonization. “Squaw” is a pejorative for Native American women. There was another controversy regarding renaming the Lancaster High School (suburban district northeast of Buffalo) mascot from “Redskin” to anything else. These, in my mind, are fairly cut-and-dry. Pejoratives and slurs do not have places in civilized conversations, so change the name. Done.

Agreement was not universal. Instead, some folks argued that it was “political correctness gone too far,” and, especially in Lancaster’s case, “a tradition”. Despite the fact that we live in the historical lands of the Iroquois Confederacy, Redskins supporters flew in a Native American from South Dakota, about half a week’s drive away, to argue that the Redskin moniker wasn’t offensive to Native Americans, nevermind a loud chorus of local Seneca people who argued otherwise. Two other districts’ lacrosse teams vowed to boycott games until the name changed. The school board voted to change the mascot. A former resident of Black Rock wrote to The Buffalo News angry that the name of Squaw Island was changed, suggested that because they spent their childhood ignorant of the offensiveness of the term, it never should have changed.

You could predict how a person would react to the Lancaster mascot name based on which part of the story they thought was important. If the important part was that the Redskin term is a slur, they wanted the name changed. If someone felt that Native American culture deserved more respect, they wanted it changed. If they felt the more important part was that the history of the high school came with the name “Redskins”, they wanted to keep it. If someone felt that their freedom of expression was continually being constrained by etiquette, they probably resented the change.

One point: you cannot argue that the “Redskin” name was a tradition without flexing the muscles of white privilege. If tradition were the trump card slur-supporters suggested it is, we’d all be observing Seneca cultural traditions. It is not though – tradition only counts when a group that is relatively powerful claims it, or when it is celebrated within boundaries that other groups cannot infringe upon it (such as a family dinner, or something like that).

Another point: when the offensiveness of something is controversial, you can all but guarantee it’s an argument between more powerful and less powerful people. Why? When people who are more powerful argue that something is offensive, it sticks. Power brings with it a sense of rhetorical truth. Power brings the sense of entitlement to define it as a truth. When disadvantaged groups argue that something is offensive, and get pushback, it’s likely the offending party that is giving the pushback because, in their mind, they’ve done no wrong.

This is especially true because American culture does a poor job of understanding social structures. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my favorite Communist radical organizers, gets quoted all the time about not wanting his children to be judged “by the color of their skin, but the content of the character,” by people very willing to forget anything else he said about systemic racism and poverty. That color-blind assessment only works when evaluating individual actions on an individual basis, presuming that all other power structures are held equal. They are not, and have not ever been, equal. America is a democracy that routinely disenfranchises lots of people from voting. America is a democracy where those with more money sway the political process.

So when it comes to controversies relating to racial inequity, or gender inequity, many people are inclined to see them as the result of aggregate individual results instead of watching how the entire machine operates. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva details this phenomenon in Racism without Racists: most people will claim not to be prejudiced, and end their analysis of racial inequity there. Because, to them, racism is simply inequity and nothing more. Power is invisible. Of course this perspective is a privilege of power, and belongs exclusively, racially speaking, to white people.

Whites are the dominant race in American society, both numerically and in terms of power. This power exists in differential wealth, political representation, and in rhetorical power. This last one is the most subtle: the members of a dominant culture, no matter who it is, get to say what is and what is not. Taken-for-granted ideas are rarely challenged. It’s the backbone of the post-modern ideas of discourse; if you’d like me to bore you to tears on that, take me out to lunch.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about structures and power. I use a lot of words describing the insidious ways that power manifests itself in the stories and ways we construct truth. Did you know that Buffalo is undergoing a renaissance? It depends on how you define a renaissance. Who benefits? How do you measure it? How do you see it? If you want to see one of the better prototypical stories, check out this Gothamist article. Read past the stories of rehabs (which aren’t endeavors undertaken by most people, and are much, much, much harder than any of these pieces acknowledge) and chickens and get to the part about how those who have been disadvantaged remain disadvantaged. The statistics support this. Whether something is successful depends on how you define success: in Buffalo, we often focus on the physical infrastructure of an area as opposed to using the people as a unit of analysis.

I am more concerned with the people than the place. I’m more concerned with equity than most other things.

Another story: people have opinions about the Baltimore protests. One fellow in my area chose to express his opinions using a picture of monkeys crawling over cars, declaring, “you want to be treated like people? stop acting like animals!” Oh, God. At this point, after viral videos, PBS produced documentaries detailing our area’s prejudices, and aforementioned dust-ups with our struggle to properly respect Native Americans, I kind of expect this? I am not happy about it, but it doesn’t seem newsworthy anymore. I initially chalked up the controversy to the depth of which we are in denial about how prejudiced this area is. Also, I find it really disheartening because racial bigotry is more or less step 1 in trying to eradicate systemic racism, and we aren’t even there.

Well. Turns out this fellow, who I didn’t know from Adam, is locally famous. He organizes the Dyngus Day parade. Alan Bedenko wrote about him, and used a quote from an essay that I wrote last year arguing that Dyngus Day’s persistence in a neighborhood that was effectively abandoned by those of Polish ethnic and currently is the home of an African American population is a rather flagrant demonstration of white privilege and entitlement. As I said, “At what point does your ethnicity relinquish claim to an area that it no longer inhabits? Why does this white ethnic group feel entitled to waltz into someone else’s backyard for a celebration?”

That was shared by What’s going on in Buffalo‘s facebook page, and my sparsely updated, generally dull blog suddenly had a post with 3200 impressions.

The responses were fascinating. Once again, you could predict what someone’s opinion would be based on which part of the story they thought was the important one: the East Side of Buffalo, or this party they call Dyngus Day. Appreciative comments tended to be people who spend a lot of time thinking about the former; critical comments tended to be those with a lot of investment and experience in the latter. The latter group felt that it was unfair for me to criticize an event I’d never attended (and likely will not in the future), because ultimately, that’s the important part of the story to them, not the display of white privilege. (White privilege? We, as a city, are apparently not yet completely beyond the understanding you don’t tie notes with the N-word on rocks and throw them through the windows, or that slurs are not respectful mascots, why would I expect a nuanced understanding of how entitlement colors power dynamics among various races?)

First: I did not hear from a single current East Side resident that I was wrong. I heard from a lot of former residents, or children of former residents, that being from Syracuse and never having attended this party meant that I “didn’t understand”. Effectively, because I was not indoctrinated into their perspective, I did not understand why their claim to an area that don’t frequent, by and large don’t invest in, and as the original post notes, don’t live in, is legitimate. It’s hard not to interpret that criticism as “you’re too objective, my emotional attachment takes precedence!” It’s even harder when I live in an area that actually has more current Polish residents than the East Side does (I live in Black Rock).

Real talk? I didn’t hear from many current East Side residents at all. It’s likely because, as Kevin Kud described in this response essay, social networks in Buffalo are pretty divided. In my own experience, I have found that ideas of how things can be very uniform within a network of affinity, and then dramatically differ with another group. These groups have few bridges. So most of my traffic to that post came from the What’s Going on In Buffalo facebook post (shoutout to Craig for his willingness to share his traffic stats with me), I suspect that it’s likely his site doesn’t have many current Broadway-Fillmore residents reading it, but the descendants of many former ones. So some of the issue is selection bias.

Folks are more willing to tell you that you are wrong on the internet and nod in silent affirmation otherwise, so another possibility is that they read it, agreed, but didn’t feel compelled to tell me.

Many people fell into the usual white-person pattern of “someone brought up racism! They are the REAL RACIST, because only racists think about race”. There are a lot of white people who feel morally obligated to pretend that race doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter that, oh, there are entire disciplines that document its consequences. They feel like racism would just go away if we pretended race wasn’t salient. The problem with this perspective is its inaccuracy, that is inherently requires being in a dominant position to have this opinion, and that it bolsters racism. Allow me to explain:

Imagine a bridge that is a vital lifeline between two cities. There’s a widespread belief that it’s falling down. Now, pretend that everyone believed that the problem with the bridge was that people feared going over it. If you believe the problem with the bridge is the fear, you’ll think the solution is for them not to be afraid, and you’ll dismiss their concerns without investigation. If you think that the problem is that the bridge is actually falling down, you’ll go to it and find the broken rebar. Racism is broken rebar, but the color-blind narrative says we’re supposed to ignore it. You can’t fix something you’re not paying attention to.

There were a lot of comments projecting various nonsense on me. This was interesting, and to be expected. A lot of it was conjecture because they struggle to separate issues when they make an argument or sincerely can’t see past their own lens. If I don’t support Dyngus Day, I must also never have been to the Broadway Market, or that I am completely unfamiliar with Polish-American culture. I must never step foot on the East Side. Nevermind my occupation, I clearly don’t know what I am talking about, because I don’t agree with their perspective. Oh, and it doesn’t matter that the area is mostly African-American, and that I can prove it with stats and figures, because a few Polish bars and churches exist there, and there are some white people. (Imagine how powerful your group is, that mere token presence is enough to render everyone else invisible.)

And it’s true. There are a few Polish bars there, and a few churches. I understand from a current parishioner that Corpus Christi is mostly white. When I attended a mass at St. Stanislas, it was entirely white, but it was also in Polish, which is a language even harder than Russian to learn so obviously few-non Polish people would be in attendance. (And my Russian only got me so far). I live near Assumption Church, and the masses I attended were more mixed. This is interesting to me. There are a few white residents. Here’s a letter to our local paper of record about what Dyngus Day was like by one of those white residents. He’s not describing a pleasant experience.

Which leads me to an interesting point. One white woman, a resident of the Old First Ward, pulled me aside and said that she read my essay with interest. If you replaced racial entitlement with class or suburban entitlement, I might as well have been describing the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The behavior she described was very similar to what the above letter to the editor details; I’ve heard similar from folks on Twitter. I didn’t attend the St. Patrick’s Day parades either).

So one possible conclusion is that what Bedenko calls “the nostalgia industry” operates on a sense of historic entitlement that only requires a subordinate group, any subordinate group, not necessarily racial to function. Another possibility is that we are just horrifically awful at being respectful at parties. (Given the stronger stigma against being racist, which is perceived as a character flaw, I suspect people would rather latch onto being universally boorish.) Yet, every weekend in Buffalo during the summer has some sort of festival and complaints seem sparse. I attended the Pride Parade and the Elmwood Art festival and those seemed welcomed and fine. They also play to the perceived strengths that current residents of that area perceive the area having.

This year, I was doing business with a human service agency located near the Central Terminal the day after Dyngus Day. I’m actually there a lot due to my job. The area was a mess with garbage everywhere. It usually looks rough because of the dilapidated housing stock but it doesn’t usually look trashed, or at least not more so than my corner of Black Rock. There is a strong sense of community in that neighborhood among the current residents. Every time I’ve been at the Broadway Market around lunch on the weekdays, I’ve seen retirement-aged gentlemen hanging out. It’s not trashed now, save Mt. Byron, which is now growing grass. (Back story here.) I am not saying it’s not rough; I’m not saying the area doesn’t suffer from severe problems of disinvestment; I’m saying that the value-added by Dyngus Day isn’t immediately obvious, and likely is a value disproportionately experienced by those who do not live on the East Side.

Which is worth exploring.

How you define a problem defines its solution.
How you define your priorities will define the problem.
How you define “success” will depend on how you define the problem.

It is all in the unit of analysis. We frequently keep defining problems and solutions in ways that benefit those in power. When we don’t, it becomes a large controversy that struggles to die even after decisions are made.

Buffalo has a long way to go before it can claim to be an equitable area, and this is thoroughly demonstrated in how we argue about issues of power.

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Thoughts in brief

What are the obstacles to writing?

In my case, it has been fatigue and a lack of a computer. My last pregnancy was challenging; having a newborn isn’t exactly a process rife with rest and spare arms. I had worked on a lengthy essay to have every computer in my home cease to function – deaths of largely old age. So while my journal has been productive, this site has not.

But here are a few ideas I’d had in the couple months without computer:

1. Marriage equality – We can finally marry whomever we’d like, without the law restricting our marriage pool by sex. This is excellent, and a victory for LGBTQ activists, who have their existence further legitimated by access to one of our society’s oldest institutions. Access to the legal benefits of marriage is important for this, as we are in the current habit of marrying the people we are sexually attracted to, as a significantly large criteria for lifelong companionship happens to be this attraction. Therefore, LGBTQ people who are primarily attracted to someone of the same sex as they are may now enjoy legal benefits.

I am wondering if we will eventually watch marriage change from an institution of love to an institution of companionship. Marriage equity has decoupled the importance of one’s sex, and I would argue sex itself, from marriage, in a legal way. We currently expect that the person we “fall in love with” would be the proper fit for a life long companion. Yet, the benefits that come with marriage are primarily ones benefiting companions – how do you split resources, who has access to you, who can you bring into your country, etc. I can foresee a distant future where the stability of companionship is lauded, and it could be considered sensible for let’s say platonic best friends to get married and be together for life, and have sexual and romantic relationships on the side, not expecting those to fulfill other needs for intimacy and social life. This could be particularly true if someone did not wish to have children. We shall see – I don’t think that would be such a bad thing for society, and I suspect that those wishing to have children would continue to pursue companionship based on attraction.

2. I registered as a member of the Green Party when I moved back to New York State largely out of ideological support for the Green platform and also disillusionment with the Democrats. The disillusionment comes in two forms: A) I am significantly more leftist than the Democrats tend to pursue (especially when it comes to the importance of democratic representation, racial equity, the need for the economy to support everyone, and the environment) and B) Corruption. Oh dear goodness we have a problem with corruption. Abandon hope that your leaders are exclusively in the game for civil service, because there is a plethora of politicians using their positions for personal or financial gain (past that which, you know, having a job permits you). I understand that those whose job is to keep an eye on the legalities are often not permitted to share their findings unless it is politically salient – for instance, the way that Cuomo shut down the Mooreland Commission once it started discovering his problems. Sigh.

The trouble with Green candidates are that they are people who run great with ideas and less on political savvy. They don’t tend to get the large numbers of campaign contributions that Democrats and Republicans get, and they lack the expectation that they will win, so people see them as left-wing “spoilers” instead of honest-to-goodness candidates worthy of consideration. I think that this is quite unfortunate, because their ideas are the best ones, and something I’d like to actively change. My occupation takes me into contact with elected officials, and in my area, elected officials generally means no one from my party of registration. (My life takes me elsewhere – I had an opportunity to show Howie Hawkins around Buffalo and that was a lot of fun.)

I have a funny anecdote where one of the members of the Green Party came to my door seeking me as we were entertaining friends. I was sitting in the glider nursing my son and chatting so my husband answered the door. The fellow, perhaps nervous, failed to identify himself at first, leaving my husband to wonder who was this strange man trying to interrupt his kid’s dinner (National Grid subcontractor? Door to door salesman? Serial killer?) and so Will started to question him on why he was there. Once he realized it was the chair of the local Green Party – oh, my wife would want to talk to you – he had me come to the door. We had a really pleasant conversation about trying to get the local Greens organized and about who was running – he was running for County Executive, another gentleman for another position, and we have a Green challenging a city council position in an adjoining district. Great!

I come to find out later, from a friend of mine who lives outside of the city, that one reason the chair is running for county executive is that our current elected county executive, a Democrat, is apparently pursuing opportunity to ballot on the Green line wihtout actually coordinating anything with the local Greens. Greens don’t cross-endorse. They run their own candidates because really, a cross endorsement just makes you a front for that party. This was really disappointing to me, because I consider our county executive one of the most competent and thoughtful politicians in our area. I appreciate the attention and energy he pays to issues of poverty and the ways that he’s stood up to powerful commercial entities (like the Buffalo Bills) when their interest is not the public one. That doesn’t mean I don’t welcome competition for the post – I happily signed the petition for a Green challenger, Eric Jones. It was further disillusioning to see that my favorite Democrat and otherwise trusted leader is engaging in underhanded political plays too.

3. I’d be remiss not to make note of #BlackLivesMatter, though I find I do not have much to say beyond the usual. You can see how the rhetoric of white supremacy operates – those who direct attention to the factually accurate problematic state of racial relationships in our country are decried as the inventors of the problem (race-baiters), thus discrediting those who seek to create racial equity. After the shooting in the church in Charleston (and I am losing track of all the violence in my sleep-deprived state) – there was discussion of forgiveness and some further discussion about the expectation for forgiveness. It never occurred to me that forgiveness could be a tool of oppression, but I came to see how the expectation that those wronged by racism forgive the perpetrators serves as a way to protect the perpetrators – it’s OK, see, you were forgiven! I think some of the expectation that African Americans “get over” slavery is from the same vein: using forgiveness as a weapon to hide the severity of wrongs.

4. I think Buffalo, in its supposed renaissance, needs to decide what type of city it is going to be. Is it going to be a playground for adults, with lots of new bars and restaurants and things that require the expenditure of disposable income? Is it going to be a great place to raise children, where families stay for a long time? Is it going to be a center of innovation and commerce? I see most efforts going towards lifestyle, restaurants, redeveloping warehouses into fancy lofts, creating a sports arena, and less going into other pursuits. I’ve seen local urban activists dismiss poverty as a problem that we’ll either always have, or that individuals should extract themselves from, ignoring power structures or tacitly supporting them as righteous. If there was one frustration I could cite of urban activists, is that not enough of them, locally, at least, have children. It seems that only parents in the city really care about the schools, and there’s a slew of other urban activists who focus primarily on the aesthetics of urbanity, pursuing development of density at every ideological corner, nevermind that we may not actually have the population to support it. I have concerns about an economy based on industries relying on disposable income when we have such a large problem of poverty.

And those are a few thoughts for now.

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Is a Congregation Required for the UU Faith?

I stopped going to church. I didn’t stop being a person of faith, or abandon Unitarian Universalism, it is just that I stopped making the habit of leaving my daughter and my non-religious husband for a couple of hours to join a gathering of other people of similar religious identification.

I stopped going to church because I felt like oil and water. No matter how much I tried to stir myself in, I always felt separated. Some of this resulted from circumstances of life. I started going when we moved to Buffalo, and continued for about seven months. With that said, I only attended whenever I was home and not entertaining out-of-town guests, which often meant two weekends or less per month. As Tom Schade notes, UU churches are high-commitment entities, and the time I had was hardly enough time to integrate into the community. I didn’t see the same faces month to month, neither in the pulpit nor in the pews. We moved to New York so we could travel to see our families, who live in adjacent counties and cities. So that was not going to change.

I also kept running into experiences where you had to be “in the know” to know what was going on – being surprised by a plethora of trivial, small things like how a couple of dollar fee for a soup lunch replacing the coffee hour was omitted from the order of service on a day I had no cash (city living, folks). So I waited through a long line and surprise! That was embarrassing. People seemed to know each other, and/or not be interested in talking to strangers. I have enough social skills to recognize that, and so I’d spend most coffee hours alone. The cumulative effect was that it felt like I was still an interloper after maybe seven months. I shared this with an online UU growth discussion group, and was attacked and accused by one of the congregation’s members of essentially being a person of poor character (not taking initiative, playing the victim, not showing up for extra things, and other things that were not true) for describing this experience and not having memorized every single thing in every single bulletin they sent me, one email among hundreds I get per day. I mean, come on: there are plenty of character flaws that I actually do have to choose from. No need to attribute inaccurate ones. Beyond that, the services were not pushing any of my intellectually or spiritual boundaries, and so I left with neither a sense of being challenged to grow, nor any social integration. I decided that those hours were better spent with my kid and husband. (My spouse grew up without a religion and is very happy that way. I respect this.)

Most of my life I have been religious and made going to church a habit, be it as a Catholic in my youth or as a UU in adulthood. One of my reasons to seek out a religious home was to find a place to teach my daughter faith, but it seems right now she needs time with me more than she needs to be in yet another child-care setting for a couple extra hours, or squiggling and distracting her mother during a service. I work full-time in homelessness alleviation. I don’t need a church to have connections to the social justice community of my area, because it is what I do for a living. Taking more time to do church would have pulled time away from my kid and from time to develop my professional and activist connections in the community. Incidentally, my professional and family life are the most salient ways that I live my UU faith.

Why am I telling you this? I read Jordinn Long Nelson’s essay on church as a vending machine, where she argues that folks leave church in part because they have a consumerist approach to it. She’s certainly accurate that to be a part of any community, you have to sink time and energy into it. Relationships take time and effort, and being a part of a community is being a part of an aggregate of many relationships. You have to give. Like a friendship, it dies if you’re approaching it with a “what can I get out of this?” orientation. She’s also right that it is normal for people, in a context of capitalism, to evaluate everything with a cost-benefit orientation because it’s as ingrained into our culture as it is into our economy.

What Jordinn’s piece missed, in my opinion and experience, that not all relationships are worth one’s time. Not all communities are worth one’s time. We human beings aren’t connected to everyone and not a part of every social entity. You also can’t start a relationship without effort and comfort from the others involved. We are not infinite creatures. Working full-time and having very small children (one who is not yet born) is actually enough to be over-scheduled without any additional activities.

This particular essay of Jordinn’s didn’t examine the relationship of church to faith. It’s been a few months, and I am finding that church attendance and engagement is not necessarily required to live this faith. I am living the UU principles of creating a society that respects everyone’s inherent worth and dignity, interdependence, and pursuing justice outside the church walls and with people who are not exclusively UU. There are other UUs doing this work: I see them, and members of that congregation in particular, in my professional and activist life. They are doing fantastic work to better the city through civic service or community organizations. I also run into Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists doing very UU-like things. For the talk of pursuing beloved community, it’s that my community isn’t a church, it’s the broader city of Buffalo and Western New York.

Tom Schade’s essay on building church community discusses this. He argues that focusing on building a local beloved community it is a poor growth strategy. I would push it a step further: it is perhaps contradictory to what living UU values also mean.

What I am seeking when I go to church is a place that will facilitate living my faith. A consumerist approach, as Jordinn notes, is the wrong one, as my faith requires that I give a lot of time, energy, and love. However, it requires that I give it to the world, not just to other self-identifying UUs. We also lack the divine directive or commandment to attend church that other faiths have. I see the church itself as a piece of belonging to a religion, and not the entirety of it.

The entire UU infrastructure appears to function on congregations, even though the religion calls us to be broader than that. With that, we have a severe demographic problem. Do you know how many Catholic churches there are in the city of Buffalo? Thirty-two, and this is after a significant amount of closures. There is one Unitarian Universalist congregation within the city limits. Buffalo is a city of approximately 260,000 people. The three county statistical metropolitan area has 1.2 million people. There are all of five congregations in that area, compared to… I’m not even going to try to count how many Catholic or Protestant churches there are. Many communities in the country aren’t even large enough to support a single UU congregation. My point is that there aren’t enough UUs to sustain enough churches to justify a congregation-centered organizational structure. With that said, I am uncertain of what better model there would be, except that I am certain we’ll have to invent it from scratch.

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Letter to a local school board about their use of an ethnic slur for a mascot

To the Lancaster School Board:

I am a research analyst, mother, and current renter in the City of Buffalo. My family moved to Western New York a year ago, and are now looking into buying a home. We are seeking a community that fits our family – seeking an area that combines our love of parks, walkable spaces, interesting culture, and our desire to have our children in a solid, stable school district. Lancaster appeared to be one of the better fits.

The current controversy surrounding the “Redskins” moniker has given me pause. I am also an anti-racist activist of European extraction. While I do not have any blood of racial or ethnic minority groups, I advocate for an anti-racist society because it is the right thing to do. It is important to me to teach my children the importance of creating and maintaining a just society in which every single person’s dignity is respected, regardless of their heritage. In my day-to-day work, I am more accustomed to trying to explain the nuanced elements of racism: how society is structured in ways to privilege certain groups, how this privilege relies upon taken-for-granted ideas on how things should be, how events in history inform a racially disparate construction of society, and so forth. These are concepts that even college students struggle with, because they are tricky, hard to wrap one’s mind around, and require questioning everything that one considers true.

The part that almost no one struggles with? It’s not OK to use ethnic slurs.

As a parent considering your school district, it alarms me that alumni of your high school seem to be attached to using an ethnic slur as the school mascot. It seems so obvious to me that an ethnic slur is unacceptable. Denying that “Redskin” is an ethnic slur requires quite a bit of ignorance of history – isn’t the school district in the business of teaching history? Native Americans have not been a venerated group in our society. We have tried to kill them and destroy their culture. Redskin is a derogatory term. Indeed – we teach small children not to call names and not to use bad words with relative success. Why don’t the graduates of your high school understand this?

There are explicit and implicit lessons that a school can teach. The explicit lessons are those which show up on the exams at the end of the year. The implicit lessons are the ones taught by the school’s culture. By maintaining a mascot of “Redskin”, an implicit lesson that the school district teaches is that anti-Native American rhetoric is not only acceptable, but should be celebrated. This does not have to be the case. My own high school in Liverpool, NY changed its mascot to be more respectful of Native Americans, ceasing to use an Onondaga Warrior in favor of a Spartan Warrior (unlike Native American culture, the Spartan culture is a facet of history). The City of Buffalo is changing the name of Squaw Island (which is near my current home) to Deyowenoguhdoh Island in an effort to be respectful of our region’s Seneca heritage. These are positive changes. I was relieved not to have to explain to my kids that while the park is named “Squaw”, that’s actually a term they should never use, and that shouldn’t be there except that white people often have no problem disregarding the dignity of those who are not white. I will still need to explain this, especially with Redskins, teaching her lessons that our local educational bodies seem unwilling to do on their own.

I urge you to change the mascot to something respectful of human dignity.

Sincerely,
Christine Slocum
[address]

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On Not Using Anonymity

Buffalo Street in Winter; Morning

I made a promise to myself about five years ago: I was going to write everything under my real name. I wasn’t going to use pseudonyms when I write essays for my blog or when I write comments on websites. If I felt that I couldn’t say it without it being tied back to me, then I wouldn’t. I decided that it was important to me to be as transparent as possible, and as private as logical. I knew I needed to cultivate ownership and boldness. If something needed to be known, it probably needs an advocate for it. In addition, this was in a phase of life that I realized I struggled with boundaries and this would provide accountability: I value my reputation. So the imperative was this: I better make sure that the ideas were good ones, and I was stating, as far as I could know, the truth. If my name was attached to it, I better be willing to stand behind it. With that said, I was only outing myself. I wouldn’t identify people unless their identities were vital to what was being said or unavoidable (for instance, I belong to a religion which generally only has one church in any given geography; I only have one husband). This decision was made during a time of life where I was finally figuring out that those who love me are under no illusion that I am any better than I actually am, so there wasn’t an imperative to be perfect, just to be as good as I could be.

After a half-decade of this, I have a few observations:

    1. A half-decade goes quicker than you’d think.
    2. Transparency has fewer consequences when the experiences are exclusively yours, and more when experiences are intertwined with others.
    3. People may project themselves onto your entries when you don’t identify the essay’s target, which can be very revealing.
    4. If you decide not to be anonymous, you will not be anonymous.

It is this last point which is most salient for me. Sunday marks my 1 year Returnaversary to Buffalo. I moved here as a freelance barely-eeking-a-living copyeditor and mother of a small child. I finish this year as a comfortably-employed nonprofit research analyst expecting her second child. I’ve experienced extraordinary generosity from others in terms of opportunities and kindness. I love living in Buffalo, and my social circumstances permit my husband and I to live, and provide for our daughter, a very comfortable life in this city.

Seriously, Buffalo rocks.

It’s also not a very large city. It wasn’t long before I met new people and they would tell me that, “Oh, I’ve seen your name around.” My first thought was, “Dear God, I hope it was for something good.” There wasn’t really a rational reason for this fear. The recognition was usually due to my agency affiliation or they read something I wrote; the biggest risk was disagreement. I quickly learned that anonymity due to newness and sheer numbers was not a facet of Buffalo living. While living in Seattle, I drew comfort from being in a sea of too many people. Now, I see Buffalo’s denseness as a perk. In the same way that one builds relationships by being present, living by your name has the effect of building connections with civic endeavors, especially given that so much of communication occurs in online spaces.

It also has the impact that folks know what you are like.

There are some noteworthy things which come with this territory that makes being known safer. For instance, I do not share intensely embarrassing experiences. I do not belong to any especially marginalized groups. I do not live alone. I do not tend to write about subjects which get other female activists death threats. My employer read my blog and Twitter account before hiring me and felt that it would not reflect poorly on the agency. My husband is a fine, upstanding citizen who makes positive impressions on everyone he meets (for a good reason: he’s a fantastic fellow). I do not live a particularly controversial life, so being known, being comfortable, and being simultaneously authentic reflects a social location that not all people occupy.

I plan to continue this practice of using my name and avoiding anonymity. Honestly, I would recommend it. It cultivated a habit of given pause before publishing my words. It has allowed me to meet a lot of really wonderful people. It preemptively gives oneself permission to be known.

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