The Nourishment of Our Souls

Once again, restaurateur and chef Jose Andres has shown leadership in the face of calamity. Just last week, he was the cover story on Time Magazine. You may recall he set up kitchens in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian, and in North and South Carolina following Hurricane Florence. This time his response is to the coronavirus. Closing his multiple restaurants in DC and elsewhere, he will continue to pay his workers at least for the next few weeks and has set up community kitchens to provide take out options. And I hear many other restaurant owners are coming up with creative ways to support their workers and to meet community needs.

Food is one of our first thoughts in a disaster.

Like many of you, when the dimensions of this emergency became apparent, I went to the grocery store. I stocked up on everything I needed should I be unable to get to a store for some time. My initial thought was pure survival.

grocery stockerIt wasn’t hard to get the food I needed. I live less than a half-mile from two chain grocery stores and a farmers’ market and within a mile of three additional major grocery stores. Plus, there is a slew of corner stores sprinkled throughout my neighborhood. Food availability is not an issue. Quite a different reality from my neighbors who live in the poorer sections of town, the parts of town with more black and brown people. Getting to the food they need may not have been as easy. For the poorest sections of my city, there are only three major grocers for the approximately 140,000 people who live there.

Food desert has become the term typically used to describe those parts of the city with a dearth of everyday resources, including quality grocery stores. Well, that term fits. A desert is a “barren area where little precipitation occurs, and consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life.” Plant and animal life… hmmm. Sadly, poorer communities are often devoid of the lush greenery of parks seen in more affluent parts of the city. And, if we connect the “lack of precipitation” reference in the definition to the colloquialism, “make it rain,” few financial resources come into these communities.

Food desert is an apt term, but I have been urged to use the term food apartheid. Yes, that works too, “a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on the grounds of race.” The communities I noted above, with only three grocery stores, are 95% African American. These communities, lacking quality, convenient grocery stores, didn’t just happen naturally like a desert. They were created. Those in power—who own the stores—decided where their stores would… and would not… be placed.

Consider what happened to my neighborhood 15 years ago. I, along with quite a few neighbors, signed a letter to a major grocery chain requesting a store in our area. Surprisingly, the chain responded, and responded quickly, but noted that our community did not meet its desired demographic. No dog whistles here. The chain was clear on their reason. Mega gentrification later, that grocery store is now one within a half-mile of my home.

The food story isn’t just about convenience. It is about sheer availability. As we face this coronavirus emergency and try to prevent community spread, it is good to hear state and local officials acknowledging the need for food for students as they close schools. They know that far too many children rely on school breakfast and lunch programs as their only meal for the day. The most recent data from the US Department of Agriculture noted about 12% of Americans are food insecure, meaning they don’t routinely know where their next meal will come from. But when you disaggregate that data by race, we again see the disparate realities faced by people of color 22.5% of African American, and 18.5% of Latinx households are food insecure.

I find myself cooking comfort foods as I self-quarantine. For me, pot roast is one of those comfort foods, and pot roast just isn’t pot roast without potatoes, carrots and onions. When I peel those onions, I sometimes cry. A chemical in the onions has irritated my tear glands. I can just as easily cry for the inequality so many people face every day. Even more so in times like now.

destiny of nations quoteNews stories are highlighting loss of income for minimum wage/hourly workers and gig workers not working due to coronavirus related shutdowns or lessened hours. When was the last time you thought about minimum wage workers? Do you know what the minimum wage is? How far does a minimum wage worker’s paycheck go? As we come to rely more on grocery store workers, think about their salaries, their benefits. So many of the people who hold the fabric of our society together receive little of our attention or our support. As your knowledge grows and you realize the unequal treatment and disparate outcomes, you may experience tears, sadness, or regret.

There’s no time for tears and let’s not look back with regret. Take action. Let’s turn these moments of realization into catalysts for transformation. You have free time now. Google to see where and how you can become an advocate for change.

As I sit down with my pot roast, it’s not just a meal providing sustenance, it’s comfort food. We must work to fix inadequacies in the way things are, so they become as they should be for all people. We must thank and support the stockers in grocery stores, the restaurateurs like Jose Andres, and all who are helping us to get through this situation. It’s not just about survival, it’s about the nourishment of our souls.

 

On the Coronavirus, Kindness, and Friendship

I suspect the coronavirus—the pandemic—is top of mind for all of us.

“Breaking News” flashes across my television and my phone with a regularity that only contributes to my anxiety. And, yes, I am anxious as I look at the impact in other countries and recognize the dearth of preparation in the United States to address this dire situation.

My email is full of messages from sources as diverse as my DC Council representative, Walmart, TDBank, and the Kennedy Center. Everyone is reminding me of what to do to keep myself and others safe during this national/international emergency. The number one recommendation—social distancing—has become a common term. Stay at home, away from crowds, is the preferred practice.

Before we isolate ourselves, we must get ready, an action that often involves being in crowded situations. I noticed something last week as I negotiated grocery store aisles packed with shoppers (no real distancing then!). People were friendlier, Christmas friendly. It wasn’t exactly a festive air, but there was a kindness that seemed to permeate every grocery store or pharmacy I visited. There was a chattiness, helpfulness, a genuine “we’re all in this together” sense of community. I like that. It feels good.

And I’ve realized something else. I’m not concerned about the prospect of being in my home for two weeks, a month or longer. Well, I am an introvert, but it’s more than that. I have food, television, music, books and I have my friends. No, these aren’t imaginary friends. I haven’t gone off the deep end yet. I have friends with whom I am connected via social media.

internet-3113279_1920Experts talk a lot about how we have already self-isolated because we focus more on social media than pure social interaction, direct one-to-one contact with people. I believe that some, particularly young folks, may go overboard with their level of attention to Snapchat, Instagram, or whatever platform draws them in. But I see the benefits/the positives. Facebook and Instagram are my preferred sites. Posts from my friends offer glimpses into their worlds. It’s not the same connection as sitting for hours over a glass of wine in a favorite restaurant. Still, the back-and-forth on Facebook and introducing new views and experiences into the “conversation” offers a one-on-one connection.

As a person in the high-risk category for coronavirus, I am mindful of what will keep me safe. I won’t attend anything where there are crowds. My exposure will be limited to the grocery store, and I hope there won’t be much of a need for that. I will take walks, read, watch movies, Facebook with friends, and settle into a quieter life. The seriousness of this situation must stay somewhat in the background — just for now; so I can stay centered and calm.  But, please know …  I am concerned about hourly wage workers – many of whom are black and brown — who are being negatively affected by the canceling of sporting and major entertainment events and the closing, or significant shortening of hours, of restaurants and other venues. I am concerned about the health status of Lyft and Uber drivers. And worried about school children, so many of whom have their healthiest (and perhaps only) meals at school and who may not have the technology at home to enable their access to online education. I am extremely concerned about the declaration of a national emergency that places somewhat uncontrollable power into the hands of the president. That concerns me a lot.

The coronavirus is our shared enemy, and people come together when there is a shared enemy. I will rely on my friends to keep me centered, sane, and in community with them. I will depend on the rationality and public policy expertise of elected officials (and their staffs) to address our national response to this disease in a manner that is science-based and human-centered. I will rely on the kindness of strangers—tall ones—to get that last box of penne pasta I can see on the top shelf but can’t reach. And I will cheer on folks like the multiple NBA players and the team owners who have said they will pay for arena workers’ salaries while the stadiums are closed. And I applaud the members of philanthropy—my former professional community—who are asking what philanthropy can do as they adjust restrictions on grants and thoughtfully consider how to best support their grantees and the people they serve.

I know that examples of greed and insensitivity have popped up during this emergency. I suspect more will come, but I hope that kindness, friendship, and understanding will predominate. I hope that as serious and deadly as this pandemic is… in the aftermath and as we go through it, we all learn something and realize we—all people—are part of the greater whole. Show compassion and treat each other well.

 

Getting to the Truth is …

Exhausting.

Like the rest of the country, I have just been through an impeachment, the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary, and the Nevada Democratic debate. I thought these events would offer glimmers of hope for my country, an America I perceive as mired in racial hatred and inequity.

Ultimately, none of them did.

With evidence of the president’s coercion of a foreign government to uncover potentially compromising information on a political challenger, I thought our elected officials would do the right thing.

They didn’t.

They fiercely supported the president. While his racist behaviors predominate in why I want him removed from office or defeated, they aren’t the only reason. I fully believe, and there is much to suggest, that Trump is moving America to fascism. Think 1930s Germany.

The impeachment didn’t give me my hoped-for solution. In fact, soon after that, Trump thumbed his nose at black America at the State of the Union when he celebrated Rush Limbaugh, a radio commentator known for his racist remarks, by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country.

puzzle-1152792_1920On the heels of that travesty, the Iowa caucus occurred. I still don’t fully understand why the Iowa caucus is so important. I know it indicates who the country will support, but why Iowa? Iowa is not representative of the country. 90.7% of the state’s population is white as compared to 76.5% nationally. And to add insult to injury, if you have been convicted of a felony in Iowa, you can’t vote for the rest of your life. 26% of the state’s prison population is black even though only 4% of the state’s population is black. Iowa’s views don’t represent me or a lot of America that looks like me.

Then, we went on to New Hampshire, another disproportionately white state where the field of Democratic presidential candidates narrowed to Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.

Have you looked at their records on racial equity/racial justice? I think most people don’t have the time and/or policy acumen to review all the public statements and votes to come up with some indication of the candidates’ racial justice sensitivity and record. Fortunately, the Center for Urban and Racial Equity has done that for us.

The Center ranked Trump F, Biden F, Klobuchar C, Sanders B+, Buttigieg B+, and Warren A-. While Bloomberg wasn’t in that field of candidates, his visibility has been rising; so, let’s add him to the list. The Center ranked him F.

If you are non-black or not a person of color, you may have the luxury of only considering the candidates’ records on issues like access to health care, climate change, educational reform, etc., the issues that on the surface shape America. That is part of white privilege. But hidden behind/underneath all those issues is the fundamental matter of racial justice.

Bernie Sanders often seems to conflate economic inequality with racial inequity. They are not the same. For most of his life (certainly the majority of his adult life), he has lived in Vermont, the whitest state in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is not an indictment against him, but the reality is he has had to work harder than most to even have a connection to a black person. And we understand how vital proximity is to true understanding.

Residents of South Bend have commented that Buttigieg displayed significant insensitivity following a police shooting of an African American man, and he wrongfully equates prejudice against gay people with discrimination against African Americans.

A news report just came out in February that Amy Klobuchar may have played a significant part in wrongfully convicting a then 16-year-old African American for murder. Is that true? I will have to keep looking for news coverage on this or wonder if it’s being buried by news outlets who don’t see this as a significant story.

Joe Biden’s stumbling over questions of race has revealed a man who believes he has a lens for racial inequity, but who doesn’t. He must, for example, be reminded racists have always worn suits.

Earning the highest score is Elizabeth Warren. As has become her catchphrase, she has a plan for that, a strategy for addressing racial inequity that spans issues as varied as economic parity, maternal mortality, and housing, for example. It all sounds good, but even with Warren, I am on edge as I wait to hear the racial negatives that may still hide in her closet.

Until the Nevada debate, many political pundits were suggesting only Michael Bloomberg could defeat Donald Trump. Who knows where they stand now after that public bloodletting, but if he becomes the Democratic candidate despite proudly, and loudly, promoting “stop and frisk” policies directed against black and brown people, this will be the presidential matchup: Racial score of F against racial score of F.

Good lord.

We cannot let that be our choice.

Every president has had to deal with issues of racial equity on some level for decades. As you’re considering your choice for president, I urge you not to minimize their racial sensitivity and understanding. Which of the current pool of candidates is best equipped to do so as he or she also faces a myriad of other issues?

I have been a lifelong Democrat, and will support the Democratic candidate whoever it is, but must I hold my nose to do so? Must I settle for a candidate who has no or only minimal knowledge or understanding of the oppression that has been, and continues to be, the norm for black and brown people?

Am I going to have to settle for a candidate who has been an oppressor?

I am exhausted by the level of vigilance necessary to reveal their racial pasts, to discern their true beliefs in all they say and do or don’t say or don’t do. I read and read the backgrounds of the candidates. I listen to the comments about what this one did ten years ago, ten months ago or just 10 days ago.

I always have another step to take to get to the truth, the complete picture, the truth for black people. It’s exhausting, but …

I will not stop being a truth seeker. What about you?

 

P.S. — I do believe that people can change through a very deliberate process that takes time and intentionality. If you are supporting a candidate with a low racial score, is he or she willing to take that racial equity learning journey?

Note: Your vote on Tuesday, March 3 — Super Tuesday — will make a difference in determining the Democratic candidate. I urge you to vote.

What will you do to illuminate the past and light the future?

This will take just a few minutes—25 multiple-choice questions to be answered on your computer. No friends throwing out the answers. No public shaming or public celebration. Just a quiet few minutes to see how much you know about the African American experience and history. Please take the quiz before you read any further.

https://worldhistoryproject.org/quizzes/black_history

* * *

Many are likely to know the answer to the first question, but what if it was re-worded: “Who was the first African American allowed to play major league baseball?” You’d still know the answer, but you might think about it a bit differently. Not that there weren’t African Americans with the talent, as the stated question might imply. And if you click on the “Learn more” button, you see that the argument from the team’s manager isn’t focused on racial justice or morality, it is focused on economics. The white owner of the team, the white manager, and the white players were all going to be financial beneficiaries of this change. Then, if you have time, go deeper into his story to learn about the life of this “first” and the mental anguish he, and his family, suffered.

Then look at the second question. “Learn more” will remind you that the black community isn’t monolithic. While being black in America offers a distinct vantage point from being white or Asian, Native or LatinX, and while there may be unanimity in the desire for justice and equity among black people, there is no shared sense of strategy. In that divergence, however, a center point may become clearer. Some suggest if there hadn’t been a Malcolm X, a perceived radical, Martin Luther King’s views might not have been deemed reasonable and viable. He would have been the radical. That point alone could generate a vibrant discussion if you move just a little beyond the presented fact.

Now to the third item in the quiz. “Learn more” reveals that in 1960, just two generations ago, black people were fighting for the right to sit down and have lunch in an integrated environment. Perhaps that would have been your parents’ or maybe your grandparents’ generation. Where did they stand/fall on the question of civil rights? Have you ever asked them, or if you are the parent or the grandparent, have you ever shared with the younger members of your family what you were doing or thinking in 1960 when people were actively advocating for the civil rights of African Americans?

These are conversations that we should all have. Maybe Black History Month offers an entrée to this topic for your family.

lamp-4436364_1920Understanding a people’s history isn’t just about knowing the dates or being able to rattle off trivia at a cocktail party. It’s about revealing and understanding the layers, the actions and reactions, that contribute not just to those people, but to the fabric of the bigger, “US” as a people, as a culture. Often those revelations and the discussions happen in school. I know that is where I learned, explored and discussed much about the history of the country. My parents and my community often talked about current events, but rarely do I recall family discussions about historical events. And once I left the segregated school system, never did black history enter my formal education.

Over the last 50 years, black history has increasingly been recognized as the essential part of American history… and world history, that it is. Some states now require its incorporation into the educational curriculum. Textbooks are being written. Students are asking for it. But the subject still doesn’t seem mainstreamed into the curriculum. Some suggest that history and social studies teachers aren’t trained to teach it. Even when they try to cover the topic, they aren’t comfortable enough to delve deeply. The conversation typically stops with the facts. Others suggest many of the textbooks introduce black history with slavery, reinforcing African Americans in a lower position in society. I’m not so sure I agree with that even though I can appreciate the viewpoint. Black Americans’ history did, in no small measure, start with being enslaved. There is just so much about that reality that can be explored. Teachers can take the lesson back to Africa.* In school, we often talked about what was happening in Europe that pre-dated white settlers coming to America. I still remember the weight of my European history textbook. Whole semesters focused on the subject, but never in the 16 years of my liberal arts education did I have one course on African history. What was happening in the countries and kingdoms there?

I don’t have the answers, but I know that when Carter G. Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life (1915), later became the chief advocate for Negro History Week (1926) and promoted the study of African American culture and history throughout his life, he was not suggesting it as an add on. He was filling a void until the topic could be fully fused into any study of the history of America.

Taking a quiz or focusing on interesting factoids can start a conversation. It can begin the learning, but we must remember the facts are just where real discovery and understanding begins.

What will you do special during this Black History Month? What will you do throughout the year to better understand, appreciate, and value the contributions of African Americans?

“The past should not oppress, it should illuminate.”

—Kasi Lemmons, Director of “Harriet” during a panel discussion following the movie’s showing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 10/21/19

*If you are interested in learning about Africa’s civilizations, check out the PBS six-hour series called “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” narrated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.