Some kids want lots of toys for Christmas, but not these children

When I lived in Washington, DC I volunteered at a shelter for homeless families, Community of Hope. On Wednesday evenings I would join other childcare volunteers in watching a group of children, ages 3-13, while their parents were in a meeting. The shelter was an apartment building, which allowed families to be together and be safe after coming from an emergency shelter that housed two families to a room. 

Some parents had lost jobs. Others were working but could no longer afford the sky high rents in Washington, DC. Some were getting clean and sober after abusing drugs or alcohol. Others had illnesses. One recent resident had to stop working because of heart problems. (She just got the news that she's getting a new heart.) 

The kids had been through so much, from moving around to relatives' homes for short stays or living out of cars. Some had seen family possessions - including their toys - strewn on the curb after an eviction. Some of them knew way too much about drugs or what someone looks like on them. Others had lived with violence. 

When people assume that poor children dream of piles of toys, I think about how not once in three years did I hear children talk about stuff they wanted. When generous donors sponsored families at the shelter at Christmastime, the children were asked what they might like to get. I'll always remember some of those wishes: Two eleven year old girls wanted dolls. One little boy wanted a rubber duck. Another little boy just wanted something nice for his mommy.

You know who has long lists of toys they want for Christmas? Kids who have any hope of getting them. And some of their parents accuse the poor of being greedy "takers." I want them to meet children like my little friends, kids who just want everything to be ok. And then they can meet their parents, who want that even more. 

"Women can't project authority" and six other sexist ideas I don't miss

Some days it's hard to feel optimistic about progress for women's rights when we're still having to fight for reproductive rights, the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. But after watching MAKERS: Women Who Make America on PBS, I've been reflecting on what's changed since I was a girl in the 1970s. It's a lot. Among things I haven't heard since childhood:

  1. "Women can't project authority." This was the rationale for why women couldn't be clergy, elected officials, radio d.j.'s or reporters. The exceptions: women could be d.j.'s on low-ratings shifts if they used a sexpot voice, or they could be reporters if they stuck to light topics, though sports reporting was only for former beauty queens. (Interestingly, I heard the "no authority" line from people who still quaked in their shoes at the mere mention of the nuns who taught them in elementary school.)
  2. "Women are horrible bosses." The flip side of supposed feminine wimpiness was being a ball-busting, hard assed bitch. I heard "never work for a woman" from plenty of men, but especially from women, including "housewives" (as we still said) who didn't have workplace bosses. 
  3. "College is for sons, not daughters." I heard this from time to time, sometimes phrased as "college is a waste for girls." One friend's father didn't want to help pay for her education even though she graduated near the top of our high school class and had plans for a profession. Her brother was never interested in college. He became a welder -- something else that would have been off limits to her. 
  4. "Only boys can slide." I played softball midway through grade school, back when girls leagues were called "powder puff." The boys over on the next diamond were allowed to slide into bases, but the girls weren't. We were told that girls would get hurt, which made eight year old me wonder if our bones were more brittle. There was no other logical explanation.
  5. "No girls allowed." When I went to Catholic school, I wanted to be an altar girl, but it was for boys only. I was a quiet, studious kid who never got into trouble, but boys who misbehaved or got lousy grades could still serve just because they were boys. I hated that. At my nephew's First Communion a few years ago, I teared up when I saw that all the servers were girls. And yes, I know that the priesthood is still the ultimate Boys Club, but this one change meant a lot to me.
  6. "Damn women's libbers!" This is what many men said when women did anything - even small things - to be independent. I particularly remember this line being hurled at someone who was trying to escape domestic violence. As a kid I saw feminists through the lens of the sexist media who painted them as over-the-top and a little scary, but little by little I saw that what they advocated was what I wanted too, and that the opposition was made up of people trying to hold on to the old ways.
  7. "Nurse, secretary, teacher." Those were the options I turned over in my head when my kindergarten teacher asked what we students wanted to be when we grew up. She didn't give any specifics beyond that, but the other girls and I knew this was the list to pick from. I didn't like any of these options, so I said "nurse" just to have an answer. I was glad I wouldn't have to decide on a job for a long time.

Yes, elements of the above beliefs that still linger, but when I tell children how things used to be, they look baffled. "That's crazy!" is the typical response. Just as it never entered my mind that I could be anything but a secretary, nurse or teacher, it's never entered their minds that women can only pick from three jobs. 

For that, I am deeply grateful. 

Nonprofit experts: fickle fashionistas?

Fashion magazines unflinchingly lay down rules for readers, leaving little room for questioning. And then they change their minds a year later, excoriating readers for their terrible fashion choices.

Last year: "Wedge sneakers are the fresh new look!" This year: "Wedge sneakers? What a horrible idea!"

This year: "Mint green is the color to wear this year!" Next year: "No one looks good in mint green. Why would anyone wear it?"

Well, sometimes nonprofit experts remind me of fashion magazine editors.

Two years ago: "It's all about building that email list." Last year: "E-mail is dead. Focus on social media." This year: "Forget Facebook. It's on the way out. Build that email list."

And at least the fashionistas stick to the same script. I've read conflicting "rules" for nonprofits in the same Twitter feed.

Now, let me clarify that I find a lot of what's written for nonprofits helpful. I am glad I discovered advice-filled blogs, magazines, tweets, Facebook feeds and books. I have sharpened my skills and help change the organizations I've worked with, and I get energized by new ideas and directions.

What irks me, though, isn't the changes. It's how often advice is delivered with an insistence that this is the right way. Really? Nah, it's one way that might work. There are best practices that can be broadly applied, but there really isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.

Hey, it's all one big experiment. Let's keep looking for ways to do things better, but let's also remember that today's advice may be tomorrow's mint green wedge sneakers. 

In memoriam: What my Midwestern housewife grandmother taught me about social justice

Today my family will bury my grandma, subject of my most popular blog post: What Planned Parenthood means to my 92 year old grandmother.

In eulogizing her last night, I talked about what I learned from her.

Fairness for workers: Wife of a UAW member-Alcoa metalworker, Grandma was an ardent supporters of unions. She didn't believe that corporate executives or their political cronies would protect "the working man," which for her included women, so workers had to stick together.

Racial and ethnic equality: She didn't like how black kids were treated when they started coming to the neighborhood pool years ago, and she didn't understand fighting between groups of European immigrants. Her husband and mother were rude to my father when he was dating my mom because he was "guinea" (Italian), but Grandma was always kind to him. Years later when challenged my grandfather on his prejudice toward my dad, she took my side.

Gay equality: I remember how angry she was about the 1992 Colorado vote to prohibit civil rights protections for LGBT people. She said, "These people aren't bothering anyone. Just leave them alone!" Later, when she learned that my cousin is gay, she admitted she didn't fully understand these sorts of things since her generation never talked about them, but she had no problem with it. End of discussion.

Voting: She was born in 1918, a year and a half before women could vote in the United States. From the age of 21 on, she proudly never missed a single election. She had no patience for people who didn't vote, and she resisted switching to an absentee ballot in her later years because she was so glad to go vote in person. One of her favorite movies was Iron Jawed Angels.

Women's rights: Excited by the many advances women made in her lifetime, she burst with pride when I became the first in the family to graduate from college, and she loved seeing her granddaughters get educations, develop careers and be independent. When I called to say I was moving to Europe, she said "Oh thank God! I thought you were going to say you were getting married." Not one to express affection, she was so moved by me calling her from a reproductive rights march on the National Mall so she could hear the crowd that for the first time she told me she loved me.

Schools: While seniors have a reputation of voting against school tax levies, she always voted for them, even though her kids went to Catholic school. Always. She said it was everyone's responsibility.

Generosity: Grandma gave to charities that mattered to her, but a few people in my family, myself included, were given checks to pass along to someone we'd mentioned was having a rough time. In my case it was a check for a homeless mother I knew who'd just lost a newborn to SIDS. She never drew attention to her giving. She just did it.

Fun: Growing up, Grandma was an avid tennis player, swimmer and runner. She ran so fast in her blue uniform that her friends called her "Flaming Blue," a name she gave her fantasy football team in her 80s. She loved watching baseball, but little pleased her more than a Sunday with three football games to watch from lunchtime til bedtime. And if you called her mid-game, she'd refuse to talk until halftime.

She was quite straightlaced in many ways, but she had a mischievous side. She liked when I'd call her with jokes, but she liked the bawdy ones most of all. When my cousin and I called her from an Indians baseball game she was watching on TV, she said to flash the cameras so we'd get on TV. And in this last year, she flirted with her "boyfriends," men who worked at her nursing home. When she was like this, she got a wonderful twinkle in her eye.

What does football and being flirty have to do with social justice? Plenty. Grandma had time for the serious things in life, but she also loved the play and humor that makes life fun.

And that's what I'll remember about her most of all. A popular quote attributed to a headstone in Ireland goes “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

While I'm terribly sad that she's gone, I'll always cherish that joyful, mischievous twinkle.

The real problem with the Pat Buchanan's words

Well, he's done it again. Pat Buchanan has said something racist, and now the news is full of debates about whether or not it's ok to call a black man, in this case our president, "boy."

I'm finding some people's professed ignorance about the term baffling, but what's especially troubling is the anger that comes up among whites when they don't understand why a term is wrong.

Here's the thing. If millions of people who are the collective target of a word say it's demeaning, and that it's been a part of pain and suffering for generations, that should be all anyone has to hear.

So many whites get mad that the N-word is off limits to them even though some African Americans use it. But where's the anger at racism itself? If not in whatever case is all over TV screens at the moment, then at the incidents that happen each day, and at our nation's shameful past?

If there was, even once, a real outcry against a racist incident by millions of whites, that would go a long way toward bridging the divide in our country. If we collectively would say, in some manner, that our fellow citizens matter to us, we'd see the beginning of change.

For now, though, the power of racism is all too alive and well. The Buchanan defenders were surely the same folks who defended Don Imus a few years ago when the radio talk show host called African American women basketball players "nappy headed hos." In the words of Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post: "The First Amendment notwithstanding, it has always been the case that some speech has been off-limits to some people. I remember a time when black people couldn't say 'I'd like to vote, please.' Now, white people can't say 'nappy-headed hos.' You'll survive."

12 Reasons Why I Care about Marriage Equality & Gay Rights

    A far from complete list, in no particular order:
  1. Rosita and her partner having me witness their wills since they needed some form of legal protection as a couple who can't marry.
  2. Jen avoiding using her fiancee's name while interviewing by phone for a job in another city despite needing to discuss the move for her fiancee's studies.
  3. Shelley carefully disguising written materials she was sending to lesbians in countries hostile to LGBT people to avoid endangering these women.
  4. Steve being afraid to walk home each night for fear of being attacked.
  5. Nancy not being able to be on her girlfriend's health insurance.
  6. Jennifer's family rejecting her.
  7. Larry saying he'd used his military training to protect himself against gay bashing attacks.
  8. Coworkers who've looked anxious when first mentioning to me that they're gay.
  9. Frank enduring years of turmoil, not being able to accept himself as a gay man until his 50's.
  10. Brian telling me about the rose from a romantic high school boyfriend, adding that "of course I gave it back to him before I went into the house."
  11. Seeing how many lesbians at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing were the driving force behind initiatives helping women of all walks of life, yet hearing some women insist "we don't have lesbians in our countries."
  12. Cousin Laura

Reversing Rust Belt brain drain: Tracy on Cleveland public radio's ideastream

When is moving back to your hometown newsworthy? When that town is in the Rust Belt, which has not only lost industrial jobs but educated professionals like myself who sought opportunity elsewhere.

I'm a "boomerang" -- someone who moves away and then comes back, which in my case was after nearly 17 years in Geneva, Switzerland, New York City and Washington, DC. Boomerangs are key to depressed areas regaining their economic and cultural strength. We know our home cities well but bring back new ideas, skills and experience.

Cleveland's exciting mix of community-building initiatives drew me back. The Gordon Square Arts District, where I'm volunteering my time, has garnered national media attention for using the arts to apply "economic shock paddles" to a struggling area. Others include Ingenuity Fest's unique blend of the arts and a gritty but beautiful location, a myriad of sustainable urban agriculture projects like Community Greenhouse Partners, and a community development corporation model that is studied across the nation.

Now Clevelanders are working to draw more people like me back to affordable living costs, a growing healthcare sector, one of the nation's best metropolitan park systems, stellar arts institutions like the world famous Cleveland Orchestra, some of the best libraries in the US, and rich mix of ethnic cultures -- complete with the restaurants and markets that go with them.

I participated in the recent Global Cleveland Summit, which kicked off an initiative to draw "boomerangs" and international newcomers to Cleveland to revitalize our city and take it in new directions. I talked with a public radio reporter about why I'm back: Northeast Ohio Tries to Bring Back the Rust Belt Refugees / ideastream - Northeast Ohio Public Radio, Television and Multiple Media

NOTE: If you've boomeranged back to Cleveland, drop me a line. I'm planning a gathering to celebrate our return and to share our experiences.