“When you start shaking people’s belief systems, it’s gonna cause fear. ”

On the Road to DC—Bowling Green, KY (2): Trump had been in office one week when I met with several of the teaching staff—and one student—from Southcentral Kentucky Community College. None of them voted for Trump, but their backgrounds gave them insight into those who did.
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“We’re slowly starting to wake up and say, ‘wow, this shit really happened’.”

Version 2Road to DC: Durham, NC (Part 3) — In part three of our Durham, NC conversation we hear from Atrayus, founder, president and CEO of the non-profit Movement of Youth, which serves the “educational and social needs of underrepresented populations.” He’s also currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Christian Practice from Duke University Divinity School. His inspiring story is captured in part by a powerful TEDx talk he gave in 2014.

On our current moment

I’m in Divinity School, and one of my favorite verses is from Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” And then in John it talks about “The truth will set you free.” And I think what’s really alarming is, I think we’ve arrived at a post fact, post truth society.

One of the truths of this country is that it was founded on white supremacy, and to not be able to have honest conversations about that is a problem. I mean, we really need to dive into how that has set up systems of inequity that have created spaces in which people of color are constantly under attack, and have been de-invested from, and have been pushed to the margins of society. So I think we need to deal with white supremacy.

The second truth has to do with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways I think his legacy has been sanitized, where people focus, and I think very intentionally, on MLK as a fighter for civil rights, in particular for black folks.

“When we can societally re-determine what it means to be successful, and how success shows up, then I think we can finally get to this notion of how severely we’ve been disconnected because of it”

But what I think people forget is that he was assassinated when he was doing the Poor People’s Campaign—when he was able to dial past race and say, yes race is there, but it’s also a distraction, because slavery was an economic system…it was always about money. And as soon as he started trying to align people of various races that were poor, then he became very dangerous, because he was able to unite folks.

So while I think we need to deal with race, I also think it’s really a distraction. Because I think that capitalism is the root of why a person like Trump was able to get to where he is, because he represents this false model of success—the flashiness, the gross consumption and materialism that is directly connected to the oppression of other people.

So I think that when we can societally re-determine what it means to be successful, and how success shows up, then I think we can finally get to this notion of how severely we’ve been disconnected because of it.

On “becoming unbound”

If we can get beyond these material things and we can get back to authentic relationships with one another, then I think we’ll really be in a space where we can be become unbound.

And when I say unbound, I think there are so many systems and belief systems and thoughts that bind us, that stop us from being able to show up and fully be ourselves…we’re constantly in this space where, when we step into a new location, we have to extract a part of ourselves in order to survive.

I’ll speak for myself. When I walk into a space—you know, so I’m black, I’m a man—I have to think about which portion of me is showing up now.

Something very simple that I’m sure folks of color can relate to, is this whole notion of ‘code switching.’ I was taught that when I get into certain environments with white folks, I have to act a certain kind of way in order to be able to navigate. And it’s just something that I naturally understand. I know that when I walk into a store, I keep my hands out of my pockets, I know that I’m not going to go into secluded areas, and I’m going to look people in the eye—because I don’t want to become a target.

If I get pulled over by the police, I know there are a number of things that I need to do that I am consciously thinking about that I don’t think white people really have to deal with.

And so for me, being a person in this country of color is essentially dealing with micro aggressions every single day.

On becoming awake

And so to get back to the original question, what does this time in the country mean to me, it’s a time of urgency, but I think it’s a time in which we’ve been in the midst of a long slumber, and now we’re slowly starting to wake up and say, ‘wow, this shit really happened’, and we have to figure out what we’re going to do about it.

Because the ways in which we’ve been living are unsustainable, and the amount of damage that can be done in 4 or 8 years, if that were to happen, could damn well be irreversible.

And so I think that it’s imperative that those who are concerned and awake continue to learn and grow, but further, to find ways to build the types of connections we need to dismantle the current systems we have in place that are creating the outcomes we currently have.

“There’s a story about my life that no conversation is going to change.”

Version 2Road to DC: Durham, NC (Part 2) — In part two of our Durham, NC conversation with four young men, we hear from Charles: husband, father, mentor, banking executive and Duke University graduate. Among his siblings he’s the one who “made it out.” But that success carries with it certain family expectations that often feel like a strong pull backward.

On America today

Racial tension has been at, for my generation, an all time high—from the shootings to this election. So for me, as a black person, I ask myself, where does this go now that’s Trump’s in office? What does this mean for my community? For my sons? For the community of people I work with? And how do I actually make a difference?

I was fortunate enough to be a part of an institution that allows me to enter certain gates. But some people are not afforded those opportunities. So with this recent election and this administration, what does that mean for people who are not able to open certain gates for themselves?

Being able to have that conversation is really difficult. Especially if you don’t know what systems have been in place, before my time, to divide and to disenfranchise.

I was just looking at the new person who’s the overall head of education, Betsy DeVos. When I see her inability to answer certain questions, or even take a stance on certain things, it’s extremely scary. Like, you’re responsible for a trillion dollars of funding! And these are my kids that I’m thinking about, and anyone else who has kids who are going to be growing up in this system.

And it’s really like disheartening. You know, you can have some comic relief, with all these different people trying to make fun of it, but if you really take a step back and look at it, it’s really scary. What is this going to mean in the next 4 years? And I really believe it may even be another 4 years. And some people may say ‘no, that’s crazy.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t think you understand the power of the white supremacist system. This is not something that just happened out of the blue.’

On the role of conversations

Conversations do excellent things. I think that’s the starting point, allowing space for people to talk…I think that’s the first step. But I don’t think conversations alone get things done.

I’ve been in meetings similar to this where we’ve had police officers, and people of the community, particularly black and Latino, and we all sat in the room and had our discussions, and we talked about the disrespect the police officers go through, and people from the community say ‘well, I don’t think that justifies people losing their lives.’ And so you have these dialogues and then the police officers go to their homes, and the black people go back to their community with all the crime.

My personal story is an example. You know, I graduated from Duke but I have a brother who’s been in prison for 10 years. He just got out, can’t get a job, can’t get an apartment. I got another brother who’s struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.

To this day, my own mother is sleeping on the couch with my aunt and my uncle, who are staying at my uncle’s mother’s house. And every single one of them is educated. My aunt is a pharmacist; my mom got her doctorate in pharmacy.

So we can have these conversations, which I think is excellent, just to allow people to vent their stance so that people can open up their minds to more solutions. But after I have this conversation with you guys, I’m going to go where I’m staying, and there’s a story about my life that no conversation is going to change. That’s just the honest truth.

On ‘pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps’

When my wife and I came back from the Philippines, we didn’t have a place to stay, so we were staying with a friend of ours, he’s white, and he builds subdivisions. And we had a conversation about how he and his wife don’t understand why black people can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

And you know, a few months later, he’s in the process of possibly going bankrupt, losing everything. And he’s a Christian, and he said the Lord told him to reach out to his father, who’s a millionaire, and ask him for support. And his father says he will cover all of his son’s expenses for two years, until he can pay back that loan.

And it’s disheartening, it’s extremely disheartening, and the reason why I say that is because we had that conversation—we were very open, and he heard my perspective, and I heard his perspective, and then as time went by, my mom is still sleeping on the couch, my aunt is still sleeping on the couch, and they’re both educated, and they can’t call anyone for that kind of support because there’s no one able to do anything like that. So when they screw up, their margin of error is like this [pinches fingers together].

So as soon as they f-up, it’s all gone. And then when their kid gets out of prison, they look to the son that got out, and it’s like, ok, alright, I have to help you. So the money that I would be saving to prepare for my kids for their future, I’m spending tens of thousands of dollars on rehab for my brother for drug and alcohol addiction.

And the solution is very unclear, outside of dismantling this system, and I truly don’t know how to do that, outside of educating the people within my sphere of influence.


“What does an American look like?”

img_2828Road to DC: Durham, NC (Part 1) — In Durham we met with four men—Atrayus, Charles, Humberto and David—who in a wide-ranging, three-hour conversation gave us insights into worlds we have little exposure to. The conversation was so rich we’re breaking it into segments. First up is Humberto: A Latino who became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

On America today:

I think that there’s a lot of uncertainty. And I think different folks feel it for different reasons. Some people are concerned about jobs, others are concerned about justice…and healthcare is certainly a concern for everyone, really. There’s just a lot of tension.

I was living in Washington DC and the day the election happened, everyone was shook. You talk to the waiters at the restaurant…they don’t know what’s going to happen. Some of them are undocumented. Some, like my sister, are on this DACA program [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals].  And no one knows what’s going to happen. It’s one thing to be concerned about your job, and it’s another thing not to know if you’ll actually be here come August.

Then the last couple months, I think we’ve been really divided over our image of what an American is. I mean, if you ask me what an American looks like, I feel like it could be anybody, really.

But some of us aren’t viewed as Americans. And I think that in itself is a pretty interesting thing. It’s like, what does an American look like? I’d be really curious if you can ask that question of other people…get into their brain, you know? Would it look like you? Would it look like me? Would it look like someone else?

So it’s interesting that we are in this very tense moment right now. We don’t know what’s going on.

On the right to vote:

This election was kind of a big deal for me, because it was my very first time voting as a citizen. I became a citizen in 2013. And not a lot of people really understand what that actually means…when you can vote, that’s something that you gladly wait in line for.

So what I found particularly disheartening was a lot of people saying ‘I’m just not going to vote’. For someone like me who’s waited a long time to do that, to throw away that privilege, or that right, however you want to define it, is just heartbreaking.

And then you look at the [election] outcome, and you see proportionately how many people voted, and you break that down by district, and certain areas, like Michigan and Wisconsin…even break it down by counties, and then go even deeper and break it down by the census block. I mean it’s striking; it’s just striking how we came to this outcome because a lot of people said ‘I’m not going to vote.’

And that really hurt! Because I would have waited all day to vote, I would have stood in line. But to say that “I’m so mad that I’m just not going to vote period’? It’s just…I don’t know what else to say.

On attitude towards the future:

I remain optimistic. I really do. Are we going to have some turbulent times? Yeah. Absolutely. I think this is going to test our democracy, I think this will test a lot of people.

But you know, people vote for different reasons. It depends on their priorities. So I’m very interested to see what happens as people start feeling the effects of this election within themselves.

Healthcare is one example. I’m really curious to see how you de-implement something that’s a benefit. It’s very easy to give something, but it’s very hard to take it away.  Especially in rural states like KY, where they’ve had very successful programs with the Affordable Care Act. A lot of people now have insurance, a lot of people have pre-existing conditions…how are you going to take that away?

“The opportunity is to subdue the ideological concerns we all have.”

On the Road to DC: Philadelphia, PA — In Philadelphia we met with a lively group of middle-to-upper-class folks, many of whom had undergone the training offered by the Landmark Forum. I asked how they see the current situation in our country, their role in creating it, and what are our opportunities for moving forward. Here are a few edited excerpts from their responses. Continue reading