The Undercover Familiar

“Ich habe gedacht, Sie sind Oesterreicherin!”

Someone said this to me today (“I thought you were Austrian!”). Yes, they genuinely thought I was an Austrian, that I grew up here. And the reality is not so far from the truth. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but Vienna is where I came of age. Surprising, though, even post 50 how muddled and mixed I portray my own identity in this special context – on Austrian soil, in my adopted homeland.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“I live in Vienna but grew up in the US.”

That was a new description. It felt a bit like flipping the script. Where I previously tended to confess the American citizenship first before adding up my decades of residence in this German speaking country, I decided on the spot that this description is far more accurate. Vienna is home, home, home.

Vienna is where I have lived in one district for 15 out of 25 years, where both of my sons were born, where I’ve worked at the same school for two decades – home. But I’ve never been Austrian. I neither have citizenship nor do I look the part (stereotypically speaking). I am an immigrant, not an expat. I am here by choice and this is my life.

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So while I’m out at my favorite mountain lake in a very different part of the country, enjoying the best speedskating conditions one could hope for, my unexpected presence as black woman traveling in the singular raises questions among fellow hotel guests and skaters. The attention I receive is friendly curiosity from the Dutch and German table neighbors. It’s funny to recognize that we belong to a common age range of well past 40 and maxing out probably under 65. Middle-agers mostly in couple formations, I probably fit right in – economically, socially.

Meanwhile, my language usage gives me away. I no longer sound very American when I speak German. Austrian service personnel usually need a moment to size me up and make that split second guess as to whether I will understand whatever query they might have in store for me:

“Sind Sie Frau Spelic?” (Are you Ms. Spelic?)

“Zum trinken, was moechten Sie?” (To drink, what would you like?)

“Haben Sie eine angenehme Anreise gehabt?” (Did you have a pleasant trip here?)

The relief when I respond without hesitation in a clear and comprehensible German is immediate  and visible. This often gives rise to another, different level of curiosity. Often people want to understand how this is possible: such clear German, so colloquial and familiar. That’s what throws people – the familiarity. How could she, how does she seem so comfortable, so at home here?

I left home without my passport as I usually do when I travel within the country. I’m driving my own car, I have an Austrian driver’s license and my residence permit with me. I also know where I’m going. I’ve been in this particular place often. Just yesterday I ran into the owner of another hotel down the road who greeted me warmly and we shared news of our respective children. Another reminder that my presence here is not incidental, it has a history and background. This place is familiar and so too am I.

I am a domestic foreigner. Outwardly, because of my skin color I am readily perceived as a foreigner, a non-native for sure. Once I speak and engage in easy conversation, then things change. I am that unexpected foreigner who defies the stereotype. I become a source of fascination. Internally however, I am working with a full deck of previous experience and local savvy. When I move about in this country I become the undercover familiar.

images ©Sherri Spelic / @edifiedlistener 2017

Document 2017

The peaceful transfer of power

We all watched it happen: the shaking of hands, the sitting through ceremony,

hands on Bibles. Peaceful Transfer

of power.

To witness the immediate consolidation

and abuse

of power.

To stomach the legislative complicity of

that abuse of

peacefully transferred power.

If this is where we are after 10 days,

where are we likely to be in 100 days?

I am told not to despair,

that we will fight back. Yes.

But all that power we handed over,

so peacefully

Is being used to frighten, silence and beat

us all.

If you think this is not you,

just wait.

Unless you belong to someone in that room

applauding each fresh signature of doom,

don’t believe that this won’t catch you

someday.

People will bow to authority before they recall

their humanity and

acknowledge yours.

Each of us has power and often we hand it over

because we trust,

we have faith,

we believe

that others mean us no harm.

What we forget is how poorly

we understand harm when it is not us

but our neighbor,

our colleague,

the guy across the street, city, county, country

whose livelihood, dignity, existence

is at stake.

‘No harm done’ we say so easily

because we followed protocol

when it came time.

We witnessed the peaceful transfer

of power.

Laws will be broken.

Orders will be given.

People will suffer. Always.

And that room of self-satisfied men

will know

That they got the power cheap at a

fake news rummage sale.

And they will hoard it and flaunt it

and use it against us,

because we gave it to them,

we handed it to them through

our quirky institutions and unspoken appetite

for criminal political theater.

The power they got peacefully handed over

will be the instrument of our undoing.

It already is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unsettled Here and Now

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I’m going to get personal for a minute here.

Sometimes I can be particularly observant of what’s going on around me and also in me. At present it feels like my powers of observation are a little out of whack. And I think this has to do with my increased traffic on social media platforms.

Since the US Presidential election, I’ve delved more deeply into my online engagements. Twitter has become my primary news source as well as my go-to space for a sense of community in troubled times. As incredibly grateful as I feel for the tremendous wealth of good will, necessary political resistance, and human warmth I experience, I also recognize the slow drain on my attentional and emotional resources.

Every day and on every tweet that I raise my #resist flag, I know this is what I must do, at the very least. I have picked a side and it happens to be against the incoming administration and majority aggressively Republican legislature. Even though I am geographically very distant, I experience the sense of dangerous and targeted upheaval on a very personal level. I fear for individuals as well as systems. And as I watch a group of overwhelmingly white, straight, so-called Christian males parade before multiple TV cameras and announce their policy plans, I feel sickened to know how quickly the country will likely find itself flat on its back not knowing how it got there.

I fear for our individual and collective exposure through our very willing and often enthusiastic embrace of digital tools and platforms which offer us convenience, speed, and seemingly unlimited choice. We are, at the same time, in fairly constant danger of becoming hostages of all the data we give away daily. With our clicks and instrumentalized acquiescence, we have created our most sophisticated and unforgiving monsters yet, which still maintain a miraculously rosy veneer of being society’s new great helpers.

All told, I’m feeling a lot of fear.

At my core I am an educator. My dialogues with students provide some of the richest contours to my thinking and doing. I look forward to starting classes soon in order to get grounded again; to be brought back to my core mission of helping students “Get fit, get better, and get along.”  We’ll have conversations about how we include, nurture, challenge and respect each other. They will remind me about the importance of fair play and being kind to one another. They will remind me to keep working on being my best. Perhaps more than at any other time in my teaching career, creating a classroom where fairness, openness and care are built into everything we do is the most important work I can do – for my students and for myself.

 

image: Spelic/@edifiedlistener

Words Worth Reading

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image via Gratisography

For days I was eager to get back to my laptop to finally be able to write again. Really write. And here I am with a little time and peace and I feel empty rather than full. At the same time I do have a need and desire to share a few helpful/useful/peace-bringing reads which have made this challenging political moment a little less dim, a bit more manageable.

Tressie has become a trusted source of wisdom, clarity and wit. In this post-election essay, she explains how so many “professionally smart people” completely misread the signs and signals that the Republican candidate could win. Understanding how she arrives at hopelessness as a point of departure requires more of the reader than surface comprehension, it demands empathy.

My hopelessness is faith in things yet seen and works yet done. Hopelessness is necessary for the hard work of resisting tyranny and fascism. It is the precondition for sustained social movements because history isn’t a straight line. It is a spinning top that eventually moves forward but also always goes round and round as it does.

I love this conversation because it’s probably the only way I can “be in the same room with” these people I so deeply admire.

I described this essay on place and identity as a “gentle and exquisite read”.

“We live in a world where love of land, love of place, love of home, means very little. We might value it in literature, but if a place must be sacrificed for a higher use, meaning a use that generates money, then love will not save it. That doesn’t make the love any less real.”

This article is the most uplifting yet practical piece I’ve read since the election. Taking care of ourselves and our loved ones while resisting political bankruptcy is a tall order for long stretch. The article shares how to do both.

Our first task, then, is to get ready to resist in ways small and quiet, and large and loud…

Much of the progress in the coming years will happen locally—in cities and neighborhoods, and sometimes statewide. Cities are locally accountable and far less gridlocked by partisanship, and they have some latitude to get things done, even with a hostile federal government. City leaders understand the need for living wages, they value their immigrant populations, and they see firsthand the impacts of climate change. Change is still possible in our communities.

This collection of White House photos of the first family are, well, a little bit of comfort in stormy times.

By the way, The New Yorker has had some outstanding cartoons out these last few weeks. go treat yourself to some well crafted humor.

Be well, everyone. We have work to do and we have each other.

 

 

What Vision? Whose Vision?

While we haven’t landed yet, we can see the ground coming closer and we’re scared.

OK. Below is the post I wrote before I found a clarifying statement AT THE BOTTOM of the offending document. So please read the post as is with my first understanding.

Recently, the Fraternal Order of Police (the largest national law enforcement union, apparently) released it’s proposed actions* for the incoming US President in his first 100 days. It’s not an overly formal document so that it is easy to understand what this group is asking of the new leadership.

Among other things, there is a general sentiment of “make policing overly powerful and unaccountable again.” Hurry up and repeal whatever safeguards undocumented children and adults have and deport them as soon as possible. Restore local police access to military weaponry. Reverse most recent presidential initiatives to reduce police authority in use of force. As a letter representing an organized body of law enforcement employees, it is more than disconcerting to hear what their most immediate priorities are in a new political climate.

This document is just an example. An important example because it draws my attention to a larger issue of what members of law enforcement hold as a vision of the world. While many police departments claim to “serve and protect,” reading and understanding this list of priorities made me ask – what vision of the world, its citizenry and their role to members of US law enforcement hold?

When charged with the tasks of maintaining law and order – how are you most likely to see people: as helpers or potential wrongdoers? How are you likely to perceive the way of the world – as primarily good and fair or as harsh and unkind? When you encounter the citizens you are sworn to protect – do you see them mainly as keepers or breakers of law and order?

I am not assuming that it always has to either/or. I believe that organizational context, geographical and historical frames will influence how any police officer takes up his or her given duties. But in speaking on behalf of a vast number of law enforcement members, the Fraternal Order of Police, clearly expresses  a prevailing world view and a set of political imperatives.

I ask these questions, too, because the rise of the president-elect and his supporters has given life to many new visions of what the US can and should become in the months and years to come.  We need to interrogate the content and sources of these new visions and recognize that there will be many. Every group will have its special set of desires and parameters to fulfill and will seek to arrange these with the new power structures as best possible.

So as we discover many mores such disturbing documents, let us not flinch from grasping the possibilities which white supremacists, militia groups, Wall Street tycoons, oil barons and several others see opening before them. There are ways that they see and envision the world which would hardly occur to many of us. We must keep asking, asking, investigating, interrogating.

 

Now here’s that clarifying statement from the FoP:

Please Note: This document is a predictive summary of potential actions that the Trump administration may take in its first 100 days and is based on statements from the campaign and media reports up to the time the document was distributed to FoP members. It is not an advocacy document and does not represent the FoP’s agenda for the first 100 days of the incoming administration. It is an advisory to our members as to what may happen when the new administration takes over.

Given that disclaimer, I see that I have unfairly assumed ill of the law enforcement union. At the same time, I see that I am not alone in my concern and outrage at what the document nevertheless reveals. If the incoming administration did in fact pursue these measures, how then would law enforcement act?  What is the connection between executive direction and on-the-ground compliance?

If this is not an advisory document, what would an advisory document then look like given these anticipated steps? This is where the vision question becomes all the more significant. If national law enforcement has a vision – what does it really look like and is there a chance that the objective to “serve and protect” will remain as intact priorities?

The FoP mission statement:

To support and defend the Constitution of the United States; to inculcate loyalty and allegiance to the United States of America; to promote and foster the enforcement of law and order; to improve the individual and collective proficiency of our members in the performance of their duties; to encourage fraternal, educational, charitable and social activities among law enforcement officers; to advocate and strive for uniform application of the civil service merit system for appointment and promotion; to support the improvement of the standard of living and working conditions of the law enforcement profession through every legal and ethical means available; to create and maintain tradition of esprit de corps insuring fidelity to duty under all conditions and circumstances; to cultivate a spirit of fraternalism and mutual helpfulness among our members and the people we serve; to increase the efficiency of the law enforcement profession and thus more firmly to establish the confidence of the public in the service dedicated to the protection of life and property.

“… support and defend the Constitution of the United States…” Looks like they may well have their work cut out for them.

People of Color Conference 2016: Some Thoughts on Power

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Identity as the organizing premise.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference is over. I’m sad because I was having such a wonderful time in the company of so many thoughtful, engaged colleagues. I’m happy, however, that I had space and time to make connections that matter.

While I was in Atlanta at PoCC I observed the following:

  • The People of Color Conference places identity at the forefront of our conversations. This is uncommon among education conferences in my experience.
  • Because identity is the organizing premise, each individual attendee is called on to  engage on a personal level within this professionally oriented context.
  • As we talk about who we are, how we identify and where we find ourselves, we also come across intersections and overlap – no one is just one thing. Each of us is deliciously complex which can make for exchanges that can be confusing and clarifying for different parties, for different reasons, at different stages.
  • This is a conference where we learn to hold tension, work with and through discomfort, acknowledge judgment when we are unable to suspend it.
  • I witnessed thousands more smiles than frowns.
  • There are many more indy ed Twitter fans out there than I realized. The multiple real-time tweets are the gifts that keep on giving.
  • Hugging was prevalent.
  • The empathy lamp was switched on.
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Many more smiles than frowns. Honored to be with Caroline Blackwell of NAIS and Hazel Symonette of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To be on the other side of this experience is to have gained a shade more insight on who I am and strive to be. One thing I struggle with, however, is reporting. I’m not a very good reporter. To be able to succinctly describe how moved I was by keynote speakers Bryan Stevenson, Brittney Packnett, Zak Ebrahim, or Richard Blanco might take me a lifetime. To share how bowled over I was by the spoken word poetry of 15 yr old Royce Mann or simply star struck in the presence of Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis and Christine King Ferris on the same stage – seems beyond me.

What I know and feel is how these voices and their messages are working inside me daily. In this way, my PoCC experience will not let me rest. Yet. Rather, it is leading me in the direction of “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the words of Congressman Lewis. I’m spending time meditating on power and identity and where these intersect with education. The NAIS People of Color Conference felt like my own personal “Identity, Education and Power” Conference.

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Brittany Packnett was the closing speaker. A godsend.

Brittany Packnett, who is a product of independent schools, told our assembly: “In this room sits POWER. You are either developing leaders, or you are one.” I have been thinking about this ever since. Yes, we – who are the ones we’ve been waiting for- have power. Gathered together in intentional and supportive community, we have power. Sharing our expertise, claiming our seats at the table, unleashing our brilliance – we have power. I thought about titling this post “Power of Color Conference” – because of the power we find in coming together over and through our individual and collective identities.

And we are people working largely in elite spaces. Several independent schools cater to the 1% and even to the top 10%  and 20%- if we educators of color are there, we inevitably need to be aware of and thinking about power – our own and that of others. Knowing that the majority of community members who finance and govern our institutions rarely look like us, and that of those same institutions very few were built to (also) support the intellect and advancement of people of color – this is a necessary and real understanding we ought to have. It does not mean, however, that these schools and academies are not excellent places for us to work, to teach, to coach in or for us to lead. On the contrary, our schools can be extremely open and hopeful places, encouraging and strategically forward-thinking places. And they are, for the most part, predominately white institutions (PWIs).

Ultimately, the People of Color Conference seeks to bridge this divide between the reality of PWIs and the still somewhat tentative and/or limited supply of educators of color on their campuses. Many teachers and staff of color come to the conference as a sort of oasis of fellowship. It can be tiring to stay in the role of the “lonely only”* or to be just one of a handful of folks of color at a PWI. PoCC provides that unusual opportunity to ‘flip the script’ and find (in every sense of the word) ourselves in the majority; to experience power in numbers.

After the fact I feel both restored and stirred up. I spent valuable time in a “seat” of power and the act of “knowing my place” is irretrievably expanded.

As I rise, stride and direct my movement forward, I’m on the lookout for justice – the kind that extends beyond ‘just us.’ Attending PoCC provided that necessary affirmation – I’m not alone. I have supporters and co-collaborators. We have power.

Let’s do the good that needs doing and remember to “fight issues, not people.”

 

*I am grateful to my dear friends in the digital humanities,  Maha Bali and Anne-Marie Perez, author of the article “Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities” for the reference to this term  “lonely only.”

 “Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.”

All images by @edifiedlistener.

Still Not Funny – On not giving in to humorlessness

I’ve been moved by a number of things I’ve read in these last few days. Blog posts, Twitter threads, news analysis and more. I’m listening. I’m processing and wondering.

I work with children during the day. I insist that we work to be fair to each other and kind and respectful; that we play our games safely and involve everyone. If I raise my voice, I have told them, it probably is because I have a concern about safety. I’m afraid someone might be hurt. They understand this even if it may surprise them in the moment. We have a relationship and trust each other.

My 9 year old and I were talking at the dinner table. He has a gift for the dramatic and was applying it while assembling his hamburger fixings. When I mentioned his tendency to dramatize, he responded: “You didn’t raise me to be humorless.”

Humorless is a interesting word choice for a 9 year old.

It’s true and he’s right, I haven’t raised him or his older brother to be humorless. On the contrary, humor is central to our relationships. This is good to remember as I feel my humor running low these days.

I’m frustrated by a lot of what I see in mainstream media, particularly in its highly conciliatory coverage of the US President-elect. There is so much focus on what he says when we know after a nearly 2 year campaign that he fabricates, lies and denies on a regular basis. His word is never his bond.

The unbelievable rush to generate clicks overrides every design to report with integrity. The examples are far too many and egregious to list. Painting neo Nazis as young, stylish folks, actually discussing if Jews are human on CNN, raising the question if the Vice President-elect was “harassed” by the cast members of Hamilton…and on and on. I keep shaking my head –  although disbelief is not an option I’ve told myself already.

I cannot laugh. I keep wondering – where are those helpers that Fred Rogers’ mom always told him to look out for? Where are the opposition leaders among our elected representatives? Because the catastrophe is upon us and just getting started.

So I’ve made my peace with the fact that there will be no saviors. I feel like many of us are experiencing a crisis of expectation. We keep believing that things will happen differently: it won’t be so bad, it’s only four years, that he won’t be all bad… Our false and completely inaccurate expectations – based on convention, level of privilege, and/or ignorance are leading us down a path towards our own destruction – and we’re walking it. Perhaps there’s a little apprehension in our step but because so many of us want to believe – That we’ll be alright, that they don’t really mean us any harm – we follow like the children behind the pied piper – oh how we fall in line.

If the New York Times or Washington Post aren’t  bent out of shape at the proposed cabinet members or the recent convention of white nationalists in Washington, DC praising the incoming President complete with Nazi salutes, well then, it can’t be so bad, can it? But precisely this must be our cue. The sign that something is very rotten, not in Denmark but in these divided United States.

Even as I am overwhelmed with anger, disappointment and frustration – my sons have not raised me to be humorless. On the contrary.  As I find my own way to resist the spectacle of the current developments, I will need to hold on to my capacity for humor, laughter and fun. To my sons and my students, I owe them at least that much.

Special thanks to Eric Spreng for his wonderful essay on why we need to write ourselves free from despair which helped me write this post in the midst of my confusion.