Archives for posts with tag: diversity

It’s funny, when I wrote that last post about ebola, it was something far-off. And now it’s here. I mean here.

When I first heard there was a patient with ebola in Dallas, I thought, “Huh, I wonder which hospital he’s at.” Then I found out he was at the hospital where I work.

Then they mentioned that children from four different schools might have been exposed. Someone remarked that it was unlikely that children attending four different schools could all be in one family, and I thought, “Not really. That’s very common in my neighborhood. I wonder if he lives here.” As it turns out, he does.

Now, I’m not afraid of contracting this virus. It’s not particularly easy to catch, and I follow standard precautions. I know that the hospital, and the health department, and the CDC are all doing excellent jobs.

The news crews who are swarming this gentleman’s apartment complex? I have less faith in them.

Lots of the kids I work with live there. They all came home from school today with an ebola fact-sheet. And the whole world wants a snapshot of the place where this virus lived for a few days before being isolated and hospitalized.

My neighborhood.

And I’m worried about what these news people are describing. Crowded instead of close-knit. Full of refugees instead of diverse. Dirty. Dangerous. Poor.

I see you looking at us through the lens of the news, and the combination of xenophobia and paranoia this lens promotes is a bit frightening. Much more so than a simple virus.

No, not every road here has sidewalks. No, not all of us speak English. No, we don’t look like any other neighborhood in Dallas.

But we’re not a throwaway neighborhood. We’re not a public health risk. We’re not the problem here.

We’re the solution that has yet to be called upon.

We speak 33 languages. We know our neighbors. We gather regularly to share information on the soccer field, in the laundromat, and on the street. You couldn’t ask for better participants in a campaign to ensure the safety of our friends and relatives.

But nobody’s asked us.

So we’ll try to mobilize as best we can, ducking between the cameras trying to sell a frightening story about immigration and public health. I hope that, when they start using that story as a reason to tear these old buildings down and build condos that none of us can afford, someone will remember our story too. That we aren’t just a ghetto full of scary people from scary places.

We’re the solution to problems that have yet to be understood.

And this is our home.


I love how the more I work in the community, the more it becomes a process of mutual sharing. Sharing a song with the youth in a study circle is so much lovelier when they teach me one in return. A gift of my time visiting a neighbor in her home is quite literally sweetened by the tea she serves me. A word in English traded for a word in Spanish, or in Nepali, or maybe just a loving smile.

It sounds so selfish, I know. We’re taught that we should give selflessly, without regard for reward. But I can’t help the feeling that what I’m experiencing isn’t something as petty as tit-for-tat, it’s an emerging environment of equality. We’re just neighbors. Collaborators. Friends. There are no martyrs here.

So I know a prayer in Sanskrit now. I’ve learned to make chatpate from a group of middle school girls and to make origami flowers from a talented boy who used to curse at me in the street. I hoard a collection of construction paper cards that say “I love u Mis Cat” and “Thank you for being a awesome friend.” I’ve been invited to saints’ days and birthdays and dinners and festivals. And I’ve come to understand, most people love the opportunity to share what they have. Knowledge. Art. Stories. Passion. Faith. It brings people joy the same way it does for me. Silly not to have known it all along, eh? But I’m so much richer for having discovered it now.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

Daisy and I walk down the road together. There aren’t any sidewalks here, but people drive slowly, knowing there are always children playing in or near the street.

“Where are you from?” Daisy asks.

“You mean where was I born?”


It’s a logical question, in a neighborhood like Vickery Meadow. Many of the residents are refugees and immigrants from all over the world. There are 28 languages spoken in just one square mile. It’s an amazing little microcosm of the world.

“I was born in America. My father and his parents were born in Canada, and their parents were born in Romania. Where are you from?”


“How wonderful. What country in Africa?”

“I don’t remember.”

We walk a bit further. It’s 95 degrees outside, and both of us are sweating.

Daisy asks, “Do you have a religion?”

“Yes, I’m a Baha’i.”

“Does that mean you pray to many Gods?”

“No, it means I believe people of all different religions pray to the same God.”

Her brother jumps in from behind us: “Do you believe in Muhammad?”

“I believe in Moses, and Jesus, and Muhammad, and also Baha’u’llah. That’s what makes me a Baha’i. I believe that people who pray different ways can still love one another. Like my family. My mother is Christian, and my father is Jewish, and I’m a Baha’i. We’re different religions, but they are still my family. Just like you and me. We’re different religions, but we’re part of the human family, so we still need to love each other and take care of each other.”

Daisy again: “Is everybody here a Ba-who?”

I glance back at the pack of boys and girls following at some distance behind. “Nope, just me and Nabil. There are lots of different religions here. Isn’t that nice?”

We keep walking, past neighbors speaking Spanish, Nepali, French. Children chase each other and play basketball. Babies are fed, laundry is hung, the sun beats down. Daisy and I keep moving forward in the heat and the light. What else is there to do?

Every teacher, tutor, facilitator, coach, knows this secret:

The material doesn’t change much from course to course, year to year. But each time you go through it with a different group of people, it’s like hearing it for the first time.

Today I got to go through a few sections in the course Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth with a friend. I’ve trained a couple dozen animators on two different continents since 2007 when I first became an animator myself. I’m pretty convinced by the evidence that it’s always a unique experience.

This time I had just one participant, a Chinese friend studying here at a local university. His insights were different from mine, different from the artsy teenagers, Malawian schoolteachers, Cleveland grandparents, or suburban soccer moms I’ve worked with before. I loved his thoughts on selfless service to others as a political slogan versus a habit of the heart. He drew connections between the development of modern physics and moral standards of conduct that had never occurred to me. He made me laugh at the idiocy of the English language. (“Execute the plan? I thought execute means …”)

It’s not that hard to isolate yourself from difference, if you put your mind to it, but you’ll end up isolated from your own best self as well. You can read twenty new books in a bubble, but you’ll never have the experience of reading the same book twenty totally different ways because each time it was with a person whose experience is totally different.

The second thing about this teacher’s secret: it isn’t secret. The importance of being open to the world is clear if we’re willing to accept it.

You don’t have to see it to believe it. But it must be believed to be seen.


Jef and I spend Christmas with my dad’s side of the family, because nobody does Christmas better than the Jews.

No presents except small silly ones. Traditions include listening to the Queen’s address, jam sessions, a walk through the cemetery, and food. Lots and lots of food, from turkey to bagelech to mince meat pie. If it’s Hanukkah, we do that too. On Boxing Day we go to the movies and get carry-out sushi so nobody has to cook.

New Year is with my mom’s family, which means one fancy dinner out and one pizza delivery night in. Euchre gets more competitive as the holiday wears on. Devoted Democrats and Republicans tease one another about how ridiculous everybody’s politicians seem to be. Some are wealthy, some are struggling, and some are in between, but nobody feels embarrassed about how much or how little they have. Everybody recites their annual poems. We laugh until the end of the year.

Thanksgiving is spent with Jef’s stepfamily. The vegans (there are several) and the omnivores label their potluck dishes carefully, and everyone serves themselves, buffet style. People talk politics and ask riddles and play with the dogs and the little kids. Independence Day is the same, only with more of the family. The Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Pagans, agnostics, and Baha’is sing and play games. Those who drink alcohol drink. Those who don’t, don’t. Blond rugby player Osama hangs out with his Tanzanian aunt. It’s hard to tell the Alabamans from the Ohioans, the liberals from the libertarians, or even who’s biologically related and who’s not.

So when people get upset because others don’t celebrate their holidays, call it selfish or unnatural or a cultural attack, it’s hard for me to understand. In our families, we love each other for all our differences. Shouldn’t the holidays be the time it’s easier than ever to treat everyone with the same kindness as we offer to those we hold dear?


5 things that might make you hate me:

  1. I didn’t vote in the 2008 elections.
  2. I am almost pathologically unable to gain weight
  3. I think alcohol is a stupid as illegal drugs
  4. I did no homework in high school and still got into college.
  5. I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance.

5 additional details:

  1. I was living in Malawi during the elections, with virtually no access to information about the candidates.
  2. Being naturally skinny means that people accuse me of having an eating disorder all the time.
  3. I don’t think booze should be illegal, just less socially mandatory.
  4. I studied on my own and got a 1410 on my SATs.
  5. I have no control over how people use flags as symbols. I’d rather stay loyal to the Constitution than a flag.

There are all kinds of reasons to hate each other. Envy, frustration, disgust. But a little listening to others, no matter what political party or religion or class they belong to, can go a long way.

You’re not obligated to listen any more than you’re obligated to hate, but it might be worthwhile, just the same.

To the Do-Or-Die Vegans/Vegan Police/Vegangelicals:

I’m going to confess outright: I didn’t become a vegan because I love animals. I did it for the totally selfish reason of my own personal health, and because of environmental and economic justice second. Animal welfare was a happy byproduct. I didn’t think this was that unusual. My former housemates were health vegans (they’re mostly raw now too, totally hardcore), as are several of my in-laws. Like them, I saw pretty dramatic results in the quality of my life. I was happy with my choice, and this could have continued uneventfully except for one thing: I started hanging out with other vegans.

I was happy to find community. (And the potlucks! So delicious.) But then they started telling me things like people who became vegans for health reasons can’t be trusted because they’ll go back to meat as soon as they get bored with their new diet. Or that I should throw out the leather shoes I already owned and had been wearing for years, as though prematurely adding an animal’s remains to a landfill somehow avenged its death. Or that it was wrong to encourage people to eat less meat, because only strict veganism was acceptable. In my mind, eight people practicing Meatless Monday saves more animals than one new vegan. But to these folks, it was all or nothing.

I call them the vegangelicals. And they made me hate veganism, even though I was eating a vegan diet myself.

Luckily, I found other friends. Some were vegetarian. Some vegan. Some pescetarians. Some locavores. And while we partied and cooked and sampled pizza with Daiya and veenies with locally made sauerkraut, there was a small shift in me.

I bought a vegan wallet.

I started checking labels to make sure I had cruelty-free lotion.

I started reading editorials from PETA and occasionally (not always) thinking, “Yeah, exactly. Good for you.”

So, vegangelicals, what’s the lesson here?

Sometimes people become vegans for ethical reasons. But sometimes, our ethics change in response to our diets. It’s a place from which to view the treatment of animals without being completely turned off one’s own entanglement in it. Some people don’t do their best thinking from a place of guilt.

So I get it. I get the way you feel about animals. Because I give a crap too.

But give us the time to get there. Love us for our little steps. Feed us tempeh tacos and snobby Joes and maybe show us the best place to order a vegan belt. There are seven billion people on this planet, and each one is different. Remember that, the next time you turn your nose up at another’s first efforts at change. We could be the best allies you’ve got, if you let us.

All you have to do is quit chasing us away.

I first discovered author Nnedi Okorafor as I was skimming the science fiction shelf at the Lakewood Public Library a couple of months ago. I saw her name printed in bold letters on the spine of a yellow hardcover and stopped in my tracks. Nigerian sci-fi? I thought, I’m totally reading that. I grabbed it off the shelf without even bothering to read the jacket. That novel, Who Fears Death, was somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, and altogether gorgeous. It’s rare to find a book that deals with such dark themes without being cynical. Who Fears Death blew it away.

Later, I found out that Okorafor had also written a few young adult novels. If you know me, you understand that this made me CRAZY excited. I’m such a sucker for YA lit!

So I went back to the library and picked up Akata Witch. Now, in addition to having a passion for good writing (which I knew Okorafor would deliver), I also spend a LOT of time volunteering with middle school students. So when I read young adult fiction, I’m not only hoping to get sucked in, I’m hunting for books I can recommend. I’m looking for lessons to ease my young friends’ transition into adulthood. As you might guess, Akata Witch definitely delivers. Here are four important messages I gleaned from this (really great) novel.

1. Sexism, racism, and prejudice are alive and well in the world, but individuals can make a difference.

Main character Sunny is called the derogatory term akata by her classmates at school because although she has two Nigerian parents, she was born in the United States. Once she discovers her magical nature and enters into Leopard society, prejudice doesn’t simply disappear. Some look down on her for being a free agent, one without Leopard parents. Others don’t want to play soccer with her because she’s a girl. Even her friends bicker about which tribe or nation has the strongest juju. Those with magic haven’t necessarily grown out of their outdated prejudices. But Sunny, and others in her world, are able to make small dents in assumptions and injustice, just as in the real world.

2. Knowledge is its own reward.

Currency in the Leopard world is chittim, metal rods that appear whenever one has learned something important. Sometimes, chittim fall when you have worked a new kind of magic for the first time. Other times, they might come when you use the knowledge you have to ask a wise question. While Lamb (non-magical) money can be earned by cheating or stealing, a Leopard person can only become rich through knowledge and understanding.

It’s important to note that Okorafor makes the distinction between intelligence and character. While some seek knowledge for the good of all, others seek it for their own ends. While you can’t fool chittim into raining down on you through dishonesty, the knowledge you have gained is still a tool, which some might choose to use in dishonest ways.

3. The world will go on without you … but your life is still important.

This is a tough lesson for Sunny to swallow. She and her friends are regularly sent out into serious danger by their teachers and elders. They are not the first Leopard people to attempt to stop an evil from occurring. Others have died in the attempt. And if Sunny and her friends die, others will be sent after them and the world will spin on. No one is so privileged that this is not so. And yet … each person has the chance. To make a difference. To learn. To teach. To contribute to the world. Your death is simply one of those contributions. It’s a strange balance, one that Sunny finally comes to grip with as she stands to face mortality on her own terms.

4. Your imperfections are your gifts.

This stood out to me as one of the most important lessons in Akata Witch, simply because it’s rarely articulated in novels at all, much less young adult books. In Leopard society, individuals all have a natural ability. This ability is often closely tied to a trait that makes the person unusual or unique, often viewed by Lamb society as an imperfection. Sunny, an albino, can become invisible. Sugar Cream, who can turn into a snake, has severe S-shaped scoliosis. Imagine having parents like Orlu’s, who became very excited when they learned their son was dyslexic, because they knew he would have a wonderful and unique ability. Wouldn’t that change how you thought of your own worst faults?

While fantasizing about what my natural ability would be (of course I did this, wouldn’t you?), it suddenly occured to me that this is true in our world as well. While my ligament disorder hasn’t allowed me to work magic, it has given me spiritual powers. Because of the pain I deal with, I am more compassionate. Because of my inability to run, I am more patient. My physical limitations as a teen drove me to books, which in turn gave me a gift for the written language. (And there’s always the great party trick of being able to turn my hand 360 degrees!) No, we don’t live in a world where people with skin rashes can control the weather and those who are abnormally tall can read the future in the stars, but each of our weaknesses has the possibility of growing into a strength, if we let it.

This Friday, youth, children, and adults gathered to practice their choreography for Parade the Circle, an arts-based event in Cleveland. The group’s theme is “Unity of Religion,” and they’ve put together some magnificent large-scale props, inspired by many quotations like this one:

The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Day Star of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.

The religious symbols embedded in each branch of their tree were made to have a stained glass effect. The idea is to show the beauty in the variety of colors and designs, while the source of the light is the same.

I can’t wait until next week, when we’ll get to see the group take their message to the world.

My junior youth group consists mostly of various kinds of Christians, with a couple of Baha’is thrown in. Some aren’t quite sure what religion they are. The subject of religious labels doesn’t come up too often, but because one of the youth and I were fasting, it naturally generated conversation.

One girl asked, “Can you be a Christian and a Baha’i?”

“Well,” I asked, how do you define a Christian?”

Another jumped in, “Someone who goes to church, reads the Bible, and prays.”

The girl responded, “But I hardly ever go to church, I hardly ever read the Bible, and I hardly ever pray, and I’m a Christian. I’ve been saved two times.”

They debated some more. Was a person who believed in Jesus a Christian, or was someone who lived by His teachings? Or did it have to be both?

I threw out, “So if you have one person who says they’re a Christian, but they don’t act like one, and you have another person who acts like a Christian, but doesn’t say they’re one, is either of them a Christian?”

The girl: “The first one’s a hypocrite, but the one who is a good person and acts like a Christian is a Christian.”

“Even if they don’t say they are?”

Another youth added, “What if that person is a Baha’i?”

A pause, as everybody wrangled with the fact that a good Baha’i and a good Christian look an awful lot alike.

To adults who’ve given serious thought to their theology (or lack thereof), this might seem like a frustratingly ignorant discussion. I could understand the urge to jump in with authoritative references and settle the matter once and for all.

But that urge would be wrong.

The junior youth spiritual empowerment program is so vital because it brings about conversations like this. Being nurtured in your own faith community is important, but it’s not enough. The world has an astounding diversity of thought and belief, but we rarely give our young people the social space to discuss these issues with anyone but others like them. When a junior youth group forms in a neighborhood, faith shifts from something done separately and in secret to something that is practiced among friends. The old specter of the double life is quietly laid to rest.

This isn’t a matter of developing tolerance, or even mutual respect. It’s about becoming an integrated human being. The junior youth group is a laboratory for developing the person you really want to be. A place to experiment with being compassionate, creative, and thoughtful. Room for both faith and doubt. Room enough for strong opinions, and permission to change them when they become outgrown. Space in which to develop into an adult you could admire.

Alas, I have no formula for creating the perfect youth. All I have is a series of experiences. These experiences tell me that a diverse group of adolescents, given enough support, opportunity, and time, can grow into the kind of support system it takes to pass into adulthood with integrity.

After all, it takes a village to raise a child. It’s time we remembered that other children are a part of that village, too.