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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sexuality education: the battle rages on...

As published in Feminist Reflections:  https://thesocietypages.org/feminist/2016/04/28/sexuality-education-the-battle-rages-on/


My friend’s daughter, Zoe, came home from school one day and told her dad about something that happened in school. She was in 8th grade at the time, and a trainer had just come to her class to conduct a session on sex ed. She and a boy were asked by the trainer stand in the front of the room and hold two sides of a plastic heart together. One side was blue; the other pink. You can guess which side Zoe was asked to hold. The trainer then told them to pull the heart apart. When the two pieces of plastic were separated, the trainer told the class, “This is what happens when you have sex before marriage. Your heart is broken”.
healthy futures 2
When Zoe got home that day, she told her dad about it and said that it was “kind of ridiculous…stupid”. But she also felt weird about it. And so did her dad. He reached out to other parents he knew at the school, and what ensued – once the word got out – was a year-long campaign to identify who ran the program, how they got into the school in the first place, and ultimately, how to get rid of them. We discovered that the program was run by a non-profit organization called Healthy Futures, which claims it is “dedicated to empowering adolescents to avoid the health, social, and psychological consequences of risky decisions by equipping students with the tools and educated support system they need to make healthy choices”.  Their services included – and continue to include – classroom-based education, peer education through after-school and summer programs, parent education workshops, school and community connections, and web-based resources.  But when we dug deeper, we discovered that Healthy Futures was an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) program that was part of a larger entity in Massachusetts called A Woman’s Concern. Healthy Futures is considered “the intervention side” of this larger entity. Neither the website for Healthy Futures or A Woman’s Concern indicate a connection between these two groups. That can be found on a Christian website, listing them as a volunteer opportunity. The mission statement for A Woman’s Concern’s mission is as follows:

woman concern 2A Woman’s Concern is a Christian mission to women and couples in pregnancy distress, especially those considering abortion due to lack of information and support, and dedicated to providing life-saving help in a life-changing way. To this end we provide competent and caring services that include free pregnancy tests, sonograms, peer counseling and intervention, on-going support and referrals, parenting preparation classes, post-abortion healing and opportunities to learn about healthy sexual values, mature relationships and how to establish a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.   
I was in shock. What was a fundamentalist Christian program doing in a public school? And for the next year, I was obsessed with understanding more about this organization and its values, as well as learning about the different approaches to sexuality education. I wanted to understand where Healthy Futures – sponsored in stealth-like fashion by A Woman’s Concern and brought into my daughter’s school – fit along the spectrum of sexuality education curriculum.

The Case against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs
According to the 35-year-old national program, Advocates for Youth, there are a number of reasons abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs don’t work. Of the eleven states that have evaluated the impact of AOUM programs, none have demonstrated a reduction in teen sexual activity. One strategy of these programs is have teens make a “virginity pledge”, promising to remain virgins until marriage. Researchers found that despite their promise, some “pledgers” engage in risky oral or anal sex, and if they do end up having vaginal intercourse, they don’t use condoms.

According to researchers, Hannah Br├╝ckner and Peter Bearman, even if virginity pledges help some young people delay sexual activity for up to 18 months, once they break their pledge, they are less likely to use contraception or condoms, which puts them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV or other STDs.
ab onlyAOUM programs often contain lies and inaccurate information. A 2004 report about AOUM programs says that over 80% of federally-funded AOUM programs contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, claiming that condoms aren’t effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. AOUM programs also contain false information about the risks of abortion, with one curriculum claiming that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile, will be more at risk for giving birth later on to a child with mental retardation, and that tubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions. AOUM curricula blurs religion and science, presenting “as scientific fact the religious view that life begins at conception”. One curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a “thinking person”. And AOUM curricula “treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact”. The report concludes that these programs are a colossal waste of federal taxpayers’ dollars.
The major clearinghouse on sexuality education in the US – The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says AOUM programs are “based on fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, sexual orientation and family structure.”

The case for comprehensive sexuality education
According to SIECUS, comprehensive sex education provides students with “medically accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives, including condoms, as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting STIs, including HIV/AIDS”. It teaches young people “the skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances”, as well as how “alcohol and drug use can effect responsible decision making”. Students are provided with the tools to make informed decisions. While these programs stress the value of abstinence, they also prepare students for when they become sexually active.
sex edA series of studies show that the lessons learned in comprehensive sex education programs are critical for healthy decision making during the teen years and beyond. When teens are educated about condoms and have access to them, they’re more likely to use them. When teens practice contraception in their first sexual relationship, they’re more likely to keep doing so, compared to those who used either no method or used a method inconsistently. In fact, a 86% decline in teen pregnancy from 1995 to 2002 is attributed by Columbia University researchers to dramatic improvements in contraceptive use. Only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates was attributed to a decrease in sexual activity.

Researchers Starkman and Rajani found that one-half of HIV infections in the US and two-thirds of all sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur among young people under the age of 25. By the end of high school, nearly two thirds of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners. Nonetheless, they say, “Despite these alarming statistics, less than half of all public schools in the United States offer information on how to obtain contraceptives and most schools increasingly teach abstinence-only-until-marriage (or ‘abstinence-only’) education”.

A Short history of Abstinence-only–until marriage programs
dollarOver the past few decades, the federal government has poured millions of tax-payer dollars into AOUM programming. The two main federal funding streams for AOUM programs were the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the AOUM portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. Funding for these unproven programs expanded from 1996 until 2006, particularly during the Bush Administration. Between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2010, Congress allocated over $1.5 billion tax-payer dollars into AOUM programs and a significant amount of funding CONTINUES today!

Interestingly, President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, signed into law in 1996, included a provision for AOUM programs. This funding, created via Title V, Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act, represented a shift from promoting pregnancy prevention programs to promoting abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage, at any age. Sex was to be “confined to married couples”, and abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage became the “expected standard for all school-age children”; with the “exclusive purpose (of) teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”. In other words, these programs could not – still cannot – discuss, much less advocate for the use of contraceptives, except to focus on their failure rates. AOUM programs are meant teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects”, and that it’s important for people to “attain self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”

After decades of federal support for a number of these programs, the Obama Administration and Congress eliminated the two main funding streams for AOUM programs. Congress allowed the third funding source, the Title V AOUM program, to expire on June 30, 2009. But this program was unfortunately revived as part of the health care reform package, which continues to provide $50 million a year in mandatory funding to this very day!

Power of the parents…
After discovering the AOUM program at our school, a core of parents initially gathered together and we drew up a petition, calling for the school to remove Healthy Futures and demanding comprehensive sexuality education. The support for the petition was phenomenal. Hundreds of parents signed it! Our main concern was our children’s health. We felt that it was inappropriate for a fundamentalist Christian organization, such as A Woman’s Concern, to be brought into our school. And we didn’t like the sneaky way the school had chosen to bring this program into the school.

We also wanted to know how Healthy Futures had come to our school in the first place. To our surprise, we discovered that the school’s Vice Principal had brought them. He claimed that a parent referred him and that he had no knowledge of the group’s affiliation.
orgs comp edWe presented a statement to the school administration, accompanied by a list of over 140 organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, stating the following:

We are concerned that the Healthy Futures curriculum is driven by a very narrow viewpoint and provides inaccurate information regarding the viability of condoms as protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. The (school system) has a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that has served the system well for many years…We believe that it is in the interests of the community served by the (school system) to be given full access to the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum established by the (XX) Public Schools.

We went to dozens of meetings  – with parents and administrators – where we presented data on AOUM and comprehensive sexuality education, and we demanded that the Assistant Principal be held accountable. Under duress, he promised to review other options for the following year. We also demanded that parents and students be included in any assessment of alternative options. A number of the parent teacher meetings were very tense, because parents – particularly those who were fundamentalist Christian and anti-abortion – felt personally offended that we were organizing to get rid of this program. We let them know that we respected their points of view, but that a religiously-affiliated program didn’t belong in a public school.
we wonIn the end we won! 

After all our wrangling with the school administration, we realized that we needed to take it one level up, to the School Committee, who shared our shock that a religiously affiliated program had snuck into the school. We also presented our case to the Superintendent of the school district, and as it turned out, his wife was on the Board of Planned Parenthood. Within weeks, the program was eliminated from the district!
With this victory, parents continued to be active in a number of other school-based activities. So, not only were we successful in removing AOUM programming; we also invigorated parent engagement in the school, which spilled over to other efforts to improve the school. I was asked to be on a Sexuality Education Curriculum Committee for the school system, and spent the next year reviewing curriculum which would be brought into the schools. We ended up selecting Planned Parenthood’s excellent comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.

To date, 23 states have rejected Title V abstinence-only federal funding, including:  Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This is progress, but the fight isn’t over for other states and school districts. There’s still work to do…
states sex ed
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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ode to the bra, or early lessons on becoming a woman...

This post is reprinted from Feminist Reflections.


maiden madonna maiden
My childhood friend, Gail, is six months younger than me. As adults, that age differential is totally meaningless, but as “pre-teens”, it apparently meant a lot. She reminds me that when my mother took me to the local department store to buy me a “training” bra, she followed suit.  “I had to get a bra because you had one”. We both bought Peter Pan “AA”s, ironically from a company named after a boy who never wants to grow up, played in film and play versions by petite adult women.

Underneath the story of the bra (literally) is the story of the breast, that contested body part – shall we say, the ONLY body part – on women that is multiply-functioned to feed, and to receive and give sexual pleasure; a body part which is also the site of deadly disease for growing numbers of women.
Purchasing a first bra is a rite of passage into womanhood, sort of like a secular Bat Mitzvah for young girls*. And how apt that this first bra is called a “training” bar, signifying a broader issue of how girls are “in training” to be women.

While many women – particularly those with larger breasts – may need or want a bra for comfort, the reality is that bras are not anatomically necessary to support breasts. In fact, the history of “the bra” suggests that they are literally shaped by cultural norms, which are historically situated, including the economic climate, the role of technology and available materials within a particular time period. My own drawer of bras – and yes, because I’m terrible at throwing things out, I have kept bras for at least a decade – is a veritable history of the changing notion of women’s beauty, as seen through the lens of the shaping of the breast. I might even go so far as to say that the bra is an element of physical and even social control that tells one chapter of the gendered history of women.

Short history of the bra
There is evidence that Greek and Roman women athletes in the 14th century wore simple bands of cloth covering their breasts while playing sports.bra ancient1
And apparently, medieval bras were called “breast bags”, which had distinct cut cups, in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands. In the 16th century, women in France wore corsets which flattened the breast and pushed it up and nearly out of women’s dresses. The containing and shaping of women’s bodies continued well into the 19th century, as women were corseted from breast to hip. In the Victorian era, women’s waists were tight-laced in order to emphasize the breasts and hips.
An American named Mary Phelps-Jacob is credited with inventing “the modern bra” in 1914. It was made out of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons, and she patented her design under the name of Caresse Crosby. Phelps-Jacob came from a well-to-do family, and she decided to create a bra that was more comfortable for dancing (presumably at fancy balls!).







Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design
Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design
She worked with her French maid, creating a design by tying two silk handkerchiefs together, sewing on baby ribbons as straps and a seam in the center front of the item. She later wrote: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”

By 1932, the bra company, Warner, introduced the notion of “cup sizes” correlated with letters – A, B, C and D – and added adjustable bands and eye hooks. This is the first time that breasts were no longer treated as one object; rather, they were viewed as two body parts to be enclosed separately.  Bras now used latex – as chemists had figured out how to transform rubber into textile fabric that could be woven and was washable.






bra ancient2
World War II era utility bra
During World War II, material shortages affected the design of the bra. Some were made out of minimal fabric, called “utility bras”, and they were comprised of cotton-backed satin or “drill”, often in a peachy pink color. Women also sewed their own bras from patterns or magazine instructions, using parachute silk or nylon or old satin wedding dresses.

Some women began wearing “torpedo” bras, which claimed to protect women in war factory jobs. In the 1950s, after the war, women were wearing pointy bras, called the sweater or bullet bra, which drew upon war imagery. The 60s brought the push-up bra.

In 1968, a small group of feminists staged a dramatic demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlanta, to protest the oppression of women. They picketed the event with signs saying, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People.” And they also dumped symbols of female oppression – girdles, cosmetics, high-heeled shoes, and bras – into a “freedom trash can”.






Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant
Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant
It’s unclear as to whether there was any real fire at this event, much less women baring their breasts publicly. But the image of bras going into a trash can was captured in a photo, and journalists tagged these women as “bra-burning feminists”, a phrase that was meant to brand them as crazy radicals, but only contributed to the overall protest movement, which catalyzed women for action.

In 1977, the first “sports bra” was created, made out of stretchy rubberized material that held in women’s breasts for comfort so they could do more active sports. That same year, Victoria’s Secret opened its first store, accentuating women’s breasts as objects of sexuality aimed at the male gaze. These two bra types reflected the complex notion of women’s roles in society. In the 1990s, if it wasn’t clear what the bra was intended to do, this “Hello Boys” ad came out for Wonder Bra!


hello boys

While I know many women who would like to NOT wear a bra, these images are very compelling. Our choice to wear a bra – and particularly our choice about which bra style to wear – is consciously and unconsciously impacted by notions of the so-called ideal body shape, including the socially constructed notion of what it means to be “attractive” or “desirable”, and these notions have changed over time.

So how about today?
In the 2000s, technology has allowed the creation of the “bioform” bra – which provides a consistent shape of the breast that doesn’t rely on what’s underneath it. Pauline Weston Thomas says that this bra “uplifts and contours the breasts so well that it immediately takes ten years off a sideways sagging bust.  If you are past 40 with a full cup size you may realize that you have not seen your breasts in this position for twenty years, as it centers and uplifts the breasts.”

This new bra – made possible by synthetic materials and technology-driven design – promises to literally freeze, or even turn back, time! As we age, women’s breasts change in shape and form. They may sag, but the Bioform bra maintains a youthful veneer, or what we perceive as the young breast. The bra defines the shape of the breast, including the tilt and the amount of cleavage (think, push up bras). This bra claims to literally shave years off our age, without any invasive surgery. It’s tantamount to an anti-aging tool, and considered safe. We’re not injecting any foreign substance into our bodies when we wear this type of bra, so ostensibly, it’s not harmful. But is it necessary?

Research on bras…
Based on a study conducted by French researcher, Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon from the University of Besan├žon in eastern France, “bras are a false necessity”. Rouillon argues that “medically, physiologically, anatomically – breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity.” On the contrary, he says, “they get saggier with a bra”. Rouillon spent many years measuring changes in the orientation of breasts on hundreds of women, ages 18-35, and found that women who did not wear bras had less sag. “There was no dis-improvement in the orientation of their breasts, and in fact, there was widespread improvement”. A 28-year-old woman who participated in his study and stopped wearing a bra for 2 years says, “There are multiple benefits: I breathe more easily, I carry myself better, and I have less back pain”.

So is there anything wrong with wearing a bra?  NO, of course not. And if women need a bra for comfort, want a bra because they’re modest, or want to attract men or other women with their breasts – however they want to accentuate them through the use of the bra – it’s all good!  Who am I to judge? Nonetheless, some women find “the bra” constricting and would welcome more comfort.

Here’s a great piece about a woman who experiments with not wearing a bra for a week, and discovers that she initially feels naked, discovers her breasts are lop-sided, learns that it’s not as painful as she thought it would be and eventually realizes it’s more comfortable without. She also goes out clubbing and realizes that no one notices!

And here’s another great video with a few women who try it for one week!



* A Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ritual for Jewish girls signifying that they are now full-fledged members of the Jewish community with associated responsibilities.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Chomsky, Trump, and Challenging Bigotry...

http://cdn.running.competitor.com/files/2012/12/treadmill.jpg

A few years ago, I was on the treadmill at the gym, trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there much lately, and wanted to know why. I didn’t know her well and could have manufactured some quick story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth: my 97-year-old father had passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that “he is in heaven now,” and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled back wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I could believe my dad was in heaven and, as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…



She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do. Apparently distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she paused, and then told me that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believe “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims.” With those words, I was hooked again. I looked back at her and must have appeared surprised because she smiled uncomfortably…and then told me she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now because I saw this as a “teachable moment.”

Her comments really irked me. Here was a kind-hearted, well-meaning person who lacked real knowledge about Muslims, and seemed to be swallowing whole the Fox News/right wing extremist narrative. It upset me that people like her – presumably good people – can be so vulnerable to wrong thinking. Moreover, the current array of bigoted GOP candidates – fueled by and reinforced by right-wing media outlets – are able to reinforce people’s fears into a frightening political direction.

http://www.usnews.com/dims4/USNEWS/976e756/2147483647/thumbnail/652x454%3E/quality/85/?url=%2Fcmsmedia%2F84%2F1d%2F46a5f6984d0ab8c82e04377eb88a%2Fresizes%2F1500%2F150909-immigrants-editorial.jpg

In his analysis of why Donald Trump is gaining traction in this presidential race, scholar and activist Noam Chomsky says that Trump is “evidently appealing to deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, probably among sectors like those that are seeing an increase in mortality, something unheard of apart from war and catastrophe.”  Trump supporters, he argues, “are sinking into hopelessness, despair and anger”.  Instead of directing these feelings against the structures and institutions that are “the agents of the dissolution of their lives and worlds”, Trump incites people to blame “those who are even more harshly victimized,” including Muslims.  Add to this the fact that Trump is an entertainer! He cushions his message of hatred of “the other” with the bombast of a reality TV delivery. Chomsky warns us that these “signs are familiar,” as they “evoke some memories of the rise of European fascism.”

http://christewtechproject.weebly.com/uploads/1/4/4/8/14485152/1351702220.jpg

I hearken back to the consistent message I heard throughout my life from my political activist father – that we must stand up for our beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was a very effective union organizer, fighting for better wages and working conditions for working men and women. But in 1954, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?” After much emotional wrangling, he decided to challenge the committee’s legality. As a result, he was “blacklisted” from employment in the U.S. and could only find work selling life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. Again in 1965, he was subpoenaed to testify before the Committee. By that time, he had become a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in an attempt to give voice to working people. His life choices affected his family. We lost friends and were rejected by family members. And yet I have internalized – without a doubt – the importance of challenging injustices.

So what did I say to my treadmill partner when she brought up her fear of radicalized Muslims? I told her that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. Didn’t the “Koran incite Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” she asked. I replied that I knew that was completely false, drawing upon knowledge I have gained over the years.

Did I say enough to challenge her thinking? I’m not sure. There is that moment when we may ask ourselves, “Am I going to challenge this person? How do I do it respectfully? Am I risking their wrath? Will I feel uncomfortable? While it might be a conversation with just one person, I have no doubt that these interactions can make a difference in changing people’s minds. Maybe they will be more thoughtful or less reactive. But I believe that if we remain silent, we are – in a way – complicit.

There are many ways to fight misinformation and to work for a better, more equitable world. We can organize, write, teach, and, sometimes, just talk with a friend, colleague, or acquaintance. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Driving




In the car were three patients from Hutchings Psychiatric Center. I was the driver, and we were out for a ride. It was the dead of winter in Syracuse, New York, where 40 below zero was par for the course. It was a biting cold that proffered no forgiveness, where any small swath of skin exposed would burn with a painful sharpness. But inside the car it was warm and cozy. And while Syracuse was known as a city with the least amount of sun in the U.S., second only to Seattle, which at least was surrounded by mountains, today in Syracuse there was sun. Sun that streamed into the car, warming the skin and the soul, defying the brutal Siberian temperature just outside of this metal contraption…

It was a special day. I was 21 years old and working as a dance therapist at Hutchings. How anyone trusted me to drive three patients – all recently released from long-term inpatient care – is beyond me. But I was trusted, by staff and presumably by these three patients who huddled in my off-white Chevrolet, my first car, bequeathed to me by my parents in recognition of my new adult status as a college graduate with a job. The car was used, bought by my father from his buddy, Mike, an auto mechanic at the local gas station. Mike promised my father it was safe; he had never steered my father wrong. 

When I first saw it, I felt embarrassed by how clean and big and white it was. In my demographic, it wasn’t cool, like a VW bus was cool, and I worried about looking like the middle-class kid that I was. But it was wheels, and "she" soon bore the moniker, “Little Motherfucker”, younger sister to my friend’s giant Plymouth Duster, “Big Motherfucker”. She was a solid car, good enough to drive back and forth from Syracuse to Buffalo, my hometown. And certainly good enough to take three psychiatric patients for a spin…

Two of my favorite patients were in the car, a very tall, broad man with a long scruffy beard, oversized black glasses and an oversized nautical hat, who we called the Captain. He spoke with a gruff voice in short fragmented sentences; he was a sweet man, not very coherent, but always kind. Then there was Ruth Beam, a diminutive woman, maybe 4’8” and constantly shuffling in place, thanks to her meds; I think thorazine was the drug of choice at the time. She had a small nose, close-set eyes and a mouth that seemed to turn inward, as if she wanted to fade away. Ruth was labeled schizophrenic, and after leaving the hospital, she had moved back into a trailer with her husband, who purportedly had had an affair with her sister when she was hospitalized. How anyone knew that is unclear because Ruth didn’t speak, at best muttering incomprehensible phrases that seemed to narrate her hallucinations. 

But in this moment, zooming down a New York State highway, sitting in a toasty warm car with the sun streaming in, I believe we all felt a sense of calm. There was no other place to be but where we were. I drove for an hour on highway roads, and then followed a few small roads towards Onondaga Lake. And when we arrived, we sat quietly in the car, pausing for a moment, and then slowly opened the doors, bracing our bodies against the cold. As I recall, we walked only a few feet towards the water, standing in a line parallel to the car, no one in a hurry. We stared out at the lake, a chill entering our bodies, but we had nothing to prove. So quickly did we get back in the car that I barely recall looking at the cold, hard ice or feeling gentle snowflakes touch my nose, the only body part exposed. 

Back in the car, I felt the sun’s warmth on my face and the heat blasting through the vents. As we drove back, I savored the moments and felt a sadness that I wasn’t sure I understood. 

I lasted in this job for one year. I was in way over my head. My supervisor, a lovely psychiatric nurse who treated me like a grown-up, told me that I had talent in working with this “population”. When I told her I was leaving, she encouraged me to return when I was ready. All I could think of was that I needed to get out, and I never looked back.

What drew me to work with people with psychiatric problems, coming from a family that had its share, was the exact reason why I had to get out. I had saved up as much money as I could in this one year, and left for Europe where I roamed freely for eight months, until it hit me that I had lost my sense of purpose. And that was how I learned that that was what life was about, having a sense of purpose. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the Captain and Ruth, and other patients who were assigned to me. I shudder when I think about my utter incompetence, but I was young and learning, a process I’ve discovered continues throughout life. As I think back to that day in the car, I know that we all felt a sense of adventure, with the knowledge that in our own way, just for an afternoon, sitting in the car for an hour’s ride in one direction, and then back again, with a short respite in the biting cold, we were free.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates...



Here at the Mecca[1], under pain of selection, we have made a home. As do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials and hopscotch squares. As do black people dancing at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded as survivors of catastrophe. As do black people toasting their cognac and German beers, passing their blunts and debating MCs. As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon the shores.- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant letter to his son. “I write you in your 15th year”, he says. “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. ..I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”  I have only read this book once, and I know I will read it again; it is beautifully written and full of passionate insights.  And it got me thinking about the black power movement that so deeply affected me in my late teens and twenties, and my first exposure to this movement, which arrived in a circuitous fashion that was quite personal.



In my freshman year of college, I was invited to join a sorority in which I was the only Jew. I discovered this fact when I was told, “You don’t look Jewish”, as if that were a compliment. For the first time, I felt that faintly uncomfortable sense of tokenism, knowing somehow that I was representing “my people”, but only because I fit in to “their” world. I’m sure that my response at the time was to smile, because I had been socialized that way. Perhaps it was a confused smile that attempted to cover up any latent anger doused with gratefulness for being accepted in this upper-class bastion where I did not belong. I continued to hang out with friends from my freshman dorm who had also joined the sorority, creating a transition to this new world as I walked a tight rope of social acceptance, wearing outside markers of belonging, with long flowing straight hair, short skirts and hip boots with heels. It all seemed so “natural”.



The sorority was housed in a giant mansion where we “sisters” were invited to partake in formal dinners served by young college students whose lower class brought them to their jobs as “houseboys”, young men who were not allowed to enter through the front door, but came to work instead through the kitchen in the back of the house. This was not the South, as you might be imagining. This was Syracuse, New York in 1968. Meanwhile, I was having fun with my old friends from the dorm who had joined the sorority, and was excited about the prospect of sisterhood. Only occasionally was I feeling pangs of dissonance, despite my excitement about feeling welcomed. 


My parallel passion was dance, “my true home”, and I had jumped head first into the Dance Club at my university, because there was no dance major in those days. It was there that I found the greatest solace and a full spectrum of kindred spirits. The world of dance was a place that had always felt like home.





After my first summer break, when I came back to college, I arrived at my new dorm excited to see my friends, and discovered that all of my friends from the sorority had moved into “the house” without letting me know their plans. Rather than feeling excluded at the time, I begged my parents to allow me to leave the dorm and move into “the house” as well. They agreed. Once settled in my new abode, I gradually allowed myself to see the real truth about the institution of which I had become a part. As a sister, I was part of a formal stratified system which included some and excluded many others. There were rules about behaving properly, including at three formal meals each day where we sat quietly and were served by the houseboys. Add to that the endless meetings which were governed by Roberts Rules of Order, further reinforcing the hierarchical stratification of our numbers. Hovering over our sisterhood was a small group of older women, den mothers of sorts who ensured this proper behavior. It was stifling, and this beautiful mansion began to feel like a prison.



My world outside was growing as I increasingly identified as a dancer, a creative soul who hung out with other artists who laughed freely, partook in group massage, and smoked weed. My best friend was a young gay man with a sharp eye and wit. Together we began to deconstruct the precious world of my sorority, finding absurdity in this bastion of the rich. As we absorbed the various social movements of the day, including a rising counterculture and a burgeoning civil rights movement, I had hopes that I could change the institution from within. I called for a meeting with the trustees of the sorority, and sitting in front of a small tribunal of the den mothers, I proposed that the sorority be transformed into a “collective”. Of course, they looked at me like the outcast that I was, their negative response confirming for me that this was a place where I – a Jew, an artist, a non-conformer – did not belong.



My parents gave me permission to move back into the dorm as long as I got a job to pay for my room and board. I got a job in a fast food joint, a precursor to McDonald’s, where you could get fired for pilfering one French fry. From the fancy sorority house, I moved into a simple dorm room – a double – which I shared with Cheryl, an African-American student from White Plains, New York, whose father was a psychiatrist and mother an accountant. My guess is that Cheryl didn’t have any say in the matter of my arrival, treating me cordially but with a cool distance. Each Sunday, my dancer friend and I would slip through the back door of “the house”, along with the houseboys, to pick up a delicious Sunday dinner – since my parents were still paying for the sorority through the semester. I was greeted by the lovely cook, who welcomed me with even more open arms now that I was no longer “in the fold”.



Over the few months that Cheryl and I shared a room, we developed a friendly-enough connection, but when the more radical “Harlem girls”, as they were called, came for a visit, Cheryl ignored me, and when I saw her outside of the room, she would not return my “hellos”. Eventually I moved out of the double and into a single room, and I’m sure my presence was not missed. I understood at the time that her lack of interest in me wasn’t personal, necessarily. This was a period in which black students on campus were building a movement of solidarity, separate from white people, even white roommates, and that this was an important moment of building confidence and connection amongst one another that didn’t include white women, even Jews who were rejected from Christian sororities. I remember feeling somewhat awed by the Harlem girls, who were beautiful and strong, and while Cheryl clearly came from a different class background from them, they all shared a special connection.


These were confusing times. I had gone from feeling like an outsider in the sorority because of my class and my Jewishness to being placed in the company of a young black woman who was an outsider, because of her race. Cheryl probably came from a “higher class” than me, but her racial background defined her in this predominantly white university setting, and the people she sought out for friendship were the Harlem girls, with whom she shared blackness, but not a class background.



In 1970, during my junior year, Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party, came to campus to speak. By that time, my sorority days were far behind me, and I lined up with hundreds of students to get into a packed university chapel to hear him. I was blown away by his love of black people and his analysis of class-based hierarchies. I was struck by the power of celebrating one’s collective identity, as a way to build self-esteem, as a way to achieve solidarity with others, as a way to build a movement.  Somehow, despite the fact that he was black and I am white, I felt that he was speaking to me, in his understanding of class divisions as well as racial divisions. I found myself a part of a group of white activists who supported the black power movement and Malcolm X., and felt that Martin Luther King was not radical enough. Of course now I see that the full spectrum of black leaders was necessary. But this was the early 1970s. My experience as a Jew who “passed” allowed me to understand tokenism, and my experience as a woman allowed me to better understand prejudice, being regarded as less than, not smart enough, not equal to…



As I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ treatise to his son, I am reminded of the long and hard struggle of African-American people in this US of A.


I reflect back on my earlier experience. We still live in a world of deep economic and social inequality and systemic racial injustice. I am appalled by some of the current insidious and frightening reactionary movements, fueled by politicians who take advantage of people – white people particularly – who are ignorant of possibilities and their own oppression. Sometimes I feel despairing, and yet there are places of light in the movement of people who are dedicated to social justice, people who fight for and support the current civil rights movement through Black Lives Matter, people who fight for survival on this planet through the climate change movement, people who fight for the rights of immigrants, following the line of so many people who have fought for acceptance in American society over hundreds of years, and people who continue to fight for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. I think back to my old roommate Cheryl and the Harlem girls and wonder what they are thinking and doing today.



[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to his alma mater Howard University, an historically black university, as the Mecca.