The letter I am sending the city regarding the Green Code

This is the letter I am sending the Buffalo Green Code developers regarding the human service facilities. You can send your comments to info@buffalogreencode.com. Feel free to plagiarize ideas, but I do request you don’t take the entire letter as people don’t read block letters.

As a commentor noted in the last post, this ordinance exists in the current Buffalo code. I asked around about the backstory regarding this code, and was told that it was a temporary ordinance that simply never expired. It was supposed to be temporary pending a study on non-profit concentration that was never accomplished.

Dear Green Code Developers:

By an large, you are to be commended for taking a large and unwieldy land use code and condensing it into a briefer, largely more logical set of regulations. To that end, thank you for the time and diligence that you have put into developing it.

I write with specific criticisms regarding the Human Service Facilities permit regulations. I am disappointed to see a temporary ordinance from the late 1990s, which was not based on evidence or clearly defined terms, further codified into the green code. This is a blatantly discriminatory regulation, and I am surprised that it has not been challenged legally in the time that it was enacted.

The language is vague and sets an unreasonable burden to human service providers, some of whom tend to be low-cash operations. For instance, I cannot find a study or evidence that there is a “concentration” of human service facilities. This would be a relatively easy study for the city to do (take addresses, put them in GIS), except for one facet: you would have to define what you consider a concentration. Is it three such facilities per block? Is it three such facilities per half square mile? Is it three such facilities per city? As a concentration is not defined, an over-concentration is not defined either. (My attempts to search for the topic pulled up academic concentrations – this appears to be language unique to the city of Buffalo and as far as established by the city, is not informed by any best practice). Such vague language gives a project’s detractors grounds for rejecting it without providing a concrete vision for what the city is attempting to accomplish.

I am also concerned that “adverse impact” is vacuous language that conveys neither vision of what the city wants to be, nor examples of what the city is trying to avoid. What is considered adverse? Neighbors in the Beaumaris/Woodette/Elmview neighborhood considered the development of a former factory into the now much-loved Wegmans as having a potentially adverse impact on the neighborhood, because they preferred vacant land behind their property. Some folks consider living near a park undesirable, because they do not want a place for people to congregate near their home. My point is that without a definition, “adverse impact” can simply mean “change” and anyone who is opposed to any change in their neighborhood would use that line to deter any development. That the language is used, as far as I read, exclusively with Human Service Facilities is troubling to me.

In addition, suggesting that such a facility cannot change a neighborhood (which is what the “adverse impact” language does) and also stating that such facilities cannot be placed in neighborhoods that wouldn’t be changed due to a preexisting presence of human service facilities suggests that the writers of the code wish to make the entire city of Buffalo unsuitable for these facilities. The way the code is written, a human service facility may be rejected due to undefined proximity to another facility, or because a neighborhood has none. This is troubling to me. 5,754 people were homeless in Erie County in 2013, 81% of them in the city of Buffalo. The poverty rate for children is 50.6%. Buffalo has problems with hunger, homelessness, and poverty. This ordinance targets all of the facilities which serve the most vulnerable populations, and makes it difficult for them to exist. Our poverty and hunger problems will not cease because we are not coping with them. There is no other community that we can push our vulnerable on. We need to solve our own social problems because they will not go away, and threaten the revitalization of Buffalo as a whole. Hungry people make poor potential employees.

I fear that the process to create such a facility is overly burdensome to some of the providers covered. For instance, food pantry and soup kitchen operations vary from well-funded, well-staffed, somewhat sophisticated operations to volunteer-run efforts sponsored by churches or other organizations whose primary endeavors are not soup kitchens or food pantries. These are low-cash operations that can do a lot of good for a neighborhood’s struggling residents. I would hate to see a church group dissuaded from starting a Saturday morning meal operation from their kitchen because no one feels they have the savvy to appeal to the planning board, the city council, and the zoning board of appeals. No other permit would require so many governing bodies. I noticed that state entities were exempt, but churches were not. Homeless shelters also run the gamut from professional organizations to volunteer-run ones. All of them are full in the city of Buffalo, and all play a role in meeting our state-constitutional requirement to provide shelter to all homeless residents. When they are full, the county places homeless people in hotels at significant expense. It is cheaper to the taxpayer to have shelters. The city’s residents still pay county taxes.

Nonprofits are like any other business entity in that they choose their location based on the place they can best operate logistically and efficiently serve their clients. Their clients are among the neediest, most vulnerable residents of the city of Buffalo. This ordinance creates criteria that is neither friendly to the recovery of their clients, nor does it facilitate the service facility’s function.

The city of Buffalo is participating in a consolidated plan to end chronic homelessness by 2016. This requires having beds and facilities to house the chronically homeless, who tend to have higher medical needs. The city is working against its other goals by making such efforts more difficult and costly for our community’s non-profits to pursue. We are getting close to success, and it would be a shame if the codification of this temporary ordinance erased that possibility.

Overall, it seems obvious to me that the human services facilities permit is unwise, unclear, and counter-productive to developing Buffalo into a prosperous city. All prosperous cities still have poverty and hunger. It is a consequence of capitalism. The successful ones (Seattle, San Francisco, New York City) have extensive infrastructure to cope with the problem. I fear that further codifying this ordinance is a step in the wrong direction. In the least case, it should be revised to remove language of concentration, specify and define its terms, and the procedure should be revised to include fewer governing bodies.

In the best case, human service facilities would be treated like any other business and given an identical permitting process to other potentially disruptive developments such as bars, restaurants, and commercial businesses.

Thank you for your time,

Christine Slocum
(address)
(phone number)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How The Buffalo Green Code Proposes To Make it Harder to Feel the Hungry

Have you read the Buffalo Green Code Draft?

I didn’t get a chance to review a draft of it until yesterday, when my boss pointed out section 11.3.11 to me. Read it and blink.

Unlike other non-profit or business entities, “Human Service Facilities” are singled out for extensive review. Most permits are reviewed by the City Planning Board, and then approved by City Council. Some go directly to the Zoning Board of Appeals, in a one stop shop. Some go directly to the Comissionor of Public Works. Only Human Service Facility Permits get reviewed by both the City Planning Board and City Council, and get final approval from the ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS, the body designed to review zoning aberrations.

Review Bodies
(There is more on page 4; my screenshot tool only captured part of it.)

The premise of this part of the code is faulty.

GreenCodeDesc

First, if there was a study done regarding the concentration of human service facilities, I cannot find it. I can find lots of people complaining in internet comments that such a thing exists, but no hard data nor an attempt to create it. Guys, that would be an easy thing to do with GIS. There is certainly a perception, but perception is hardly truth. You need data. You need to back up what you are saying.

This section is willfully ignorant to how human service facilities get placed. Why might an area suddenly have a lot of human service facilities? Generally because it makes sense logistically for them to be there. An agency seeking to serve clients on the East Side will be located there. You’re not going to place a soup kitchen in a place your clients cannot access. A theoretical concentration would be the result of greater need in that geography, or some other infrastructural reason (for instance, transit makes locating the Department of Social Services in a downtown area logical).

Wait, I didn’t define my terms. What are “Human Service Facilities”, anyway?

Eligibility

It’s like they were sitting around a table, brainstorming all of the agencies that help “those people”. I am struggling to think of a stigmatized population that is not covered here. They’ve got the poor, the mentally ill, criminals, and substance abusers listed. Who did they forget?

Some of those efforts, like substance abuse centers, and certainly correction centers, will have the political savvy to navigate the aforementioned needlessly complicated review process. Are you familiar with soup kitchen operation? They run the gamut from relatively sophisticated endeavors with paid staff that feed hungry people every day to purely volunteer-run efforts operating out of church kitchens perhaps once a week. Guess which one is more common? The church-lady model. I can’t think of anything that will squash some enterprising faithful person’s endeavor faster than needing to apply to the Common Council, the City Planning Board, and the Zoning Board of approval so you can feed your neighborhood’s hungry on Saturday mornings. (Churches are not exempt from this process, unlike hospitals or state regulated agencies.)

procedure

The Green Code is proposing, in addition to more red tape, a standard for applications that threatens to be impossible to meet. What is an “adverse impact”? Does it mean more people standing on the sidewalk in front of your house? Does it mean a lack of parking available? Does it mean a breech of height limits? Does it mean the presence of people considered unsavory by those who live there? Does it mean a perceived drop in property values? Does it mean anything that the current residents of the proposed site want, hence the vague phrasing? It seems that the first part suggests that some areas have too many social services, and then this section is phrased to give any detractor of a project reason to keep facilities from going into places where they currently do not reside.

Approval

denial

That is part of the criteria of approval or denial. Adverse impact on the neighborhood, again undefined. That, and whether such a facility will be sufficiently pretty. The reasons for a denial have to be in writing, but if they are as vague as this document, how helpful is that requirement?

Conditions

This is the only friendly part of the document. The Zoning Board of Appeals (but not the city planning board or council?) can break some of the rules if it is needed in order for users of the facility to “enjoy” it.

That word bothers me. Do you think anyone enjoys being in a homeless shelter? Does anyone really want to be in the circumstances where they require substance abuse treatment? They single out survival services, and then use the language of fun. The entire document treats human service facilities as a potential development adversary, and then attempts to be a little human in that part.

abandon

The problem with this section is going to take some explanation. Major funders right now, including the City of Buffalo, are seeking for agencies to merge. It is cheaper for funders to give a big grant to one agency than it is to give small grants to many agencies. Less time required for compliance, and more dollars go directly to clients instead of to overhead. Lots of non-profits merge as they run into financial problems, or if the realize they will be more effective partnered with another similar agency. This section requires them to reapply for permits on all of their existing facilities should a merge happen. This section threatens to take any cost savings from a combination and wastes it on the money needed to navigate the system. It is a bad idea. There should be grandfather clause.

Poverty, homelessness, and hunger are consequences of a capitalist economy. Buffalo may grow more prosperous, but unless the New Buffalo is a socialist utopia, the city will always have poor, homeless people. Right now, we have about 31% of our population is living in poverty. 50.6% of our children are living in poverty. It is outrageous that this draft of the code would put so many obstacles in the way of helping our most vulnerable citizens. This code is written in such a way to give Not-In-My-Backyard naysayers and developers fearful of lower property values a pre-emptive justification to object. I get it: no one wants homeless shelters or food pantries in their neighborhoods. But I have bad news: not addressing our social problems does not make them go away. It makes them worse.

My timing is poor. The comment period ended yesterday, but that does not necessarily mean that they won’t listen if you say something. This is a draft, after all, it is not the permanent version. Please write to info@buffalogreencode.com, your city representatives, and tell others that this is no good. Cut the red tape, define your terms, make policy based on actual data not developer prejudice, and for the love of God don’t make it harder to feed our city’s hungry. Let us not build this “New Buffalo” ignoring the needs of a third of our citizens and half of our children.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Data’s Role for Social Change

I work with data. I love it. I love the puzzles, I lose myself in the tedium of data-cleaning, and I love being able to uncover something that was not known before. My work is a bit abstract; I help homeless people, but I am not in the street passing out blankets. I am analyzing information for strategic planning purposes and to show funders that our community’s efforts are worthy of their dollars. I spend a lot of time thinking about the potential of data to do good or reform society. I come to the same conclusions: data can help society when it is a tool of transparency. You cannot fix what you do not know exists. You cannot disprove a myth without evidence. Data is a tool. Transparency has many layers, and it is not enough for the data to exist if the process of analyzing it is opaque. Open data is important, and open methods are equally important for any open data pursuit to have a democratizing effect.

I think a lot about democracy, because I care about that as much as I care about creating a less-brutal capitalism. A functioning democracy is a leveling tool in a context of inequitable social strata. The elite have other currencies of power: money, connections, and system-savvy, ie they know how to navigate various bureaucracies to their benefit. Votes are nearly universal (Caveat 1: if you’re not a member of a disenfranchised group. Caveat 2: ignoring the impact of lobbying: another rant for another day, in the meantime, check out LittleSis.org). If society is going to be making decisions on behalf of itself, its members need to clearly understand circumstances. I am frustrated by what I perceive to be opacity in my city’s and state’s government. I am also frustrated by positions advanced by special interest organizations without commitment to veracity or acknowledgement of nuance. I am very cynical – when a government official says that something is true, I really want to see the numbers behind the claims. What informed your projection that some project will save so much money, or create so many jobs? Why don’t political speeches have methodological appendices? Could you imagine a world where politicians and advocates had to back up everything they said with all the information that led them to their conclusion, as scientists do?

What if it was possible for you to go digging yourself? What if there was a problem that you were particularly passionate about? What if you wanted to learn more? The standard operating procedure right now is to consult various secondary sources: internet sites, books, or people involved in the field. In addition to learning about something you are interested in, there is also a socialization process in which you are taught to think about something in the ways that others have thought about it. You learn the vocabulary, the language, the best-practice (or at least heavily-adopted) strategies for accomplishing something. This is not a bad thing necessarily – best practices often are called such because they are the most effective. However, though in the course of learning a new thing, you are being taught to think about it in an old way. This socialization process can be an innovation killer. For instance, it seems to me that in Bufffalo, part of the socialization process is being taught that weary resignation is the most proper response to Buffalo’s dysfunction. It is as though being introduced to Buffalo politics is a slow process of being taught that expecting transparency is not worth your time. This is a problem. I suspect this contributes to why some of Buffalo’s issues have proven intractable (schools, grant-spending, etc).

What I am describing is the difference between learning about the woods on your own, through walking and observing, and reading a book first. You may structure your understanding of the woods differently than botanists do. Botanists have a great reason for structuring the knowledge of the woods in the taxonomies that they do. Perhaps your goal of understanding is something else. And I guess that is my idealistic wonder for open data. If people can find out on their own, would we get different ways of thinking about things? Would we get a broader skill set and perspective set infused into trying to solve our social problems? The data has to be available first. You can’t walk through the woods if there is a fence around it.

Open data, as a political movement, argues that data should be available, largely as an anti-corruption tool. For a primer on Open Data, see the Sunlight Foundation. Open Data as an aggregation of information tends to refer to data that scientists collect and the data that the government uses. The former is frequently collected as a result of public funding (for instance, a National Science Foundation grant) and the latter exists to guide decisions being made on behalf of the public. All of my previous residences’ municipalities post their real-estate records online, for instance, though only Seattle posted their code-enforcement efforts. Some government-collected data is restricted because it contains personally identifiable information that would leave clients at risk of identity theft. I work with one of those databases, though we happily provide aggregate data if one asks.

I see incorporating open data into basic government practices as a small step towards changing citizens’ sense of civic entitlement. If it is available, and becomes available for a long time, then it would be seen as normal and proper for anyone to know what the government does. Perhaps open data would be a way to let the light in, crack by crack.

A functioning democracy requires education. It is not enough to know what is going on, you have to understand it. There are nuances to this; above I mention that knowledge comes paired with a socialization process. With that said, best-practices are often such because they are effective. This is true of data. How you clean data is going to completely change your output. How you analyze data is going to inform your conclusions. It’s not enough for data to be open, but it is also important that the methods of analysis are just as transparent.

The presentation of data needs to be clear if most people are going to understand it. Otherwise open data becomes a creator of new elite class, where transparency is only available to those with a statistics or programming background. Some data presentation styles are easy to understand, like maps. Statistics are not as accessible. How many people can read a multiple regression chart and understand what it means? I work in a field where many people claim to be “bad at math”. I have heard many say they freeze whenever they see numbers. The high school graduation rate in the city of Buffalo was only 56% last year, and they celebrated it because it was an 8 point rise. Open data will be useful if the skills of interpretation are not uncommon. I would argue that explaining what a chart means, or explaining why a certain analytic tactic was used, is as important as the information being available.

The skills of creation are even more infrequent. It is like everything else: we live in houses but not everyone has the skills and knowledge to build or fix them. I will never forget the time I made my first GIS map. It was part of a University of Washington graduate statistics workshop series. I sent it to a good friend who uses GIS professionally with a cheeky, “Hey, look what I did” caption. He replied with an itemized list of the basic ways I violated map-making best practices. I forgot to include a legend – what WAS this map that I sent him? Lest you think this is my mistake alone, I have now seen three open data maps passed around twitter which lacked legends and any explanation of what they were beyond a title; sometimes they lacked even that. How was the data collected? How was it cleaned? Why should we believe it is accurate? Just because it exists? I bring up that last point because most people will uncritically believe what they read on the internet if it conforms to how they otherwise see the world. Open data could become another tool of obfuscation if it is not transparent.

I mentioned data-cleaning. If your data isn’t cleaned properly, the results will not be accurate. I had to go to graduate school to learn that skill. High schools do not teach it. Certain disciplines of undergraduate education will, so here is another skill restricted to the social stratification of privilege. (Could you teach yourself? Sure. It’s possible. Would you know to teach yourself it? Maybe.) You can have data that is open, but if the skills to analyze and interpret it are uncommon, it’s another tool of the elite.

Open data efforts should also be subject to some background research, though I concede that is very difficult given the norms of paywalls on scientific essays. Perhaps not necessarily as a first step- that would undo the “walk in the woods” benefit of open data efforts. It should be done at some point, because your data may not be as useful as it seems. For instance, awhile ago I saw a map shared on Buffalo Rising that showed the East Side of Buffalo had less crime than other parts. Oh, really? This map used police report from crimereports.com as a proxy for crime. It was created by Buffalo Open Data. The way the commentor shared the map leads me to believe he’s quite confident in its veracity. It is possible crime rates are lower on the East Side. However, it appeared that he was probably unaware of the body of sociological research which finds that folks in the poor parts of the inner city frequently don’t call the police when they experience crime. The police are not seen as allies and are perceived as doing more harm than good. It is not to say that the police are never called, but they are not as frequently relied upon as they would be in better-off neighborhoods. The people who are most comfortable with police tend to be those who are members of privileged social strata, like the white or wealthy, and those folks don’t tend to live on the East Side of Buffalo.

I would be a jerk to expect every layperson to be up-and-up on sociology (though, I bet if the commentor had been a person of color, he might have known that because, well, racism). It is totally a fair critique of my argument to say that the best practice, a survey of citizens, is pretty far out of reach for someone not being paid. (That’s how statistics for under-reported crimes, like rape, are created.) It is not that the map is terrible, it is that it requires some sizable caveats which neither the commentor, nor anyone else from Buffalo Open Data, has ever shared. And it is to the credit of the commentor that he shared the methods of the map creation with enough specificity that I could rip it apart use it as an example of potential limits for open data efforts.

Sharing the procedure is so important. Open Data efforts, if to have reformatory potential, absolutely have to be Open Data Methods efforts too. It is not just what you did, but how you did it. As teaching a man to fish is more helpful than giving him one, teaching the process of public data analysis is an integral part of transparency. It doesn’t help if it is written in R code or if it is completely disconnected from the publication of the result. This is a basic requirement of scientific papers for a reason: the findings have to earn your trust. I confess that I am advocating for a skill that I struggle with. Case in point: my analysis of length of first stay for people who experience homelessness once versus those who have multiple episodes. I tried to write it so a PhD was not required to understand it. I am not sure that I succeeded. It is hard. It is time-consuming. I recognize that this may be a burden for a those who do this as a hobby and not a paid profession.

In conclusion, for Open Data to be a reformation tool towards effective democracy, it needs to be 1) available, 2) accessible, and 3) understood. Without these, it will never achieve its potential to reform civic entities. It would become another tool of the elite.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Way Out Is Through

The way out is through. It has always been this way. We invented ways to evade it – airplanes let you go over, tunnels let you go under, and cars allow you to pass through as though you were in an air submarine, untouched by the outside elements. But all it did is made the way bigger, and more indirect. It does not mean the path was not improved. An airplane can be faster. Sometimes tunnels can be safer. But you must go through, even if you skirt the edges or insulate yourself. The way out is always through, and this has never changed.

I am trying to kill my demons. It is an act of folly because the metaphor of demons describes an inescapable aspect of being human. Rob Bell’s book, Sex God stated that we can be neither purely angelic, nor purely corporeal. We’re human, which means we are prone to errors. Jung argued that we have a shadow self. There is that saying of how is no light without darkness. Some folks feel that religions have no place in our world, being that stories cannot be empirically tested. I disagree. Religions serve as a corpus of how we understand the human condition. Therein lays my point: there is a reason that nearly every religion in the world incorporates some description of human failing, and some sense of its inevitability. It is part of everyone. It is inevitable.

There is also a reason that many religions include some method of trying to escape what we are, trying to enter some sort of salvation, transcendence, or perfection. The discomfort with a dark side and having a pursuit of perfection is as human as having a dark side to begin with.

If I cannot kill my demons, and I cannot avoid my demons, perhaps I can befriend them? It’s the dark side version of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Perhaps I can invite them over to tea and we can look each other straight into each other’s eyes and I can be kind to them, which is the only way I’ve ever reconciled with my enemies.

Of course, there are reasons one avoids their demons. There are reasons that people avoid the shadows in favor of the bright light of the sun. It is not just a question of safety, but it is a question of cultivation. Mold grows in the shadows. Flowers need the light. In our attempts to be better, we develop the better parts of us. Of course.

For the most part, I’ve been out in the exposed part of the metaphoric field, with some sort of wholesome miracle grow in garden-gloved hands. I appreciate the sun. I appreciate the crops and flowers and clover, and even the well-documented pests with the well-documented and accepted solutions. I’ve avoided the woods, with the dark shadows and the branches that intertwine, with the fact that I can’t discern the details except on the surface of the woods. It’s shrouded. The canopy blocks much of the sun in their own efforts at photosynthesis. It is how it is.

What I cannot do is ignore the fact that the woods exists.

First of all, it’s always there. It looms at the edges of the field. It seems darker and more intimidating the more I wish to avoid it. Second, I have spent time there. It ended badly. It took a long time to find my way back to the light, because my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I failed to see what it was. A youthful mistake of inexperience, I think, and some poor decision-making. The trouble is that you cannot avoid the woods forever. The forest has wood, the forest has streams, the forest has shelter that you will not find in the field. The forest is not inherently bad; it just can be easy to get lost when you cannot see as far into the distance.

I digress.

The way out is through. If I wish to experience the world in its honesty, I cannot cherry-pick the parts I like the best. I cannot filter what I see through the lenses of what I think it is. I’ve made that mistake before. So it is true with being a full human. The way to reconcile light and dark, to befriend my demons, may not be the issue of where to go through. It might require knowing where the end destination is, and passing through the woods with eyes wider and aware.

I think part of my original problem was that I liked the woods too much. I’ve never read Hunter S. Thompson, as the descriptions of what he wrote about were sufficient to give me nightmares. The guys I knew who liked him – and it was only guys who volunteered this information – were the sort of guys who pass pot to their friends to grind because they broke their arm drinking at a midnight bike ride. Trouble, really. I generally find most trouble repelling, but some of it is magnetic. I imagine this is true for everyone. You can’t divide the world into those with vices and those who do not have vices: you can sort people into certain types of vices. I’ve never heard someone say that they liked Thompson because his writing was wholesome. It isn’t – it is compelling, especially if your preferred flavor of shadow aligns with what Thompson writes about.

I am fatiguing of some of my demons, per say. I’m sick of being bothered by them, weary of their irrelevance, and watching some of the relevance creep back into my life. If you could solve a problem by being tired of it, I would have resolved this one years ago. Some pieces did simply expire, and I am grateful for that. Other pieces refreshed and renewed, and expanded my fatigue.

I write a lot, and yet come to few conclusions.

The way out is through, and if thinking through alone was sufficient…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

#Ferguson

A few minutes ago, I threw on a pair of black skinny jeans and walked out onto my porch. The air was crisp, breezy, and I watched the last few remnants of a sunset dim into the gray. There was the background noise of the arterial road that my street connects to, otherwise it was quiet. Quiet, peaceful, and safe in this northwest neighborhood of Buffalo, NY.

All of my social media feeds suggest that going outside is completely different in the Ferguson neighborhood of St. Louis. It suggests that a police force armed as the military is attempting to “establish order” in an area outraged by the killing of Mike Brown, a young, unarmed man shot by the police despite not being armed.

I wish I had a more eloquent reaction than horror.

I am hesitant to believe everything I read on Twitter; it’s a rumor mill with alarming efficiency. Yet, I do not disbelieve what folks say about Ferguson because it is completely logical that the first targets that an excessively armed branch of the state would go after would be those who tend to occupy society’s lower rungs of sympathy. I’m less skeptical of pictures than I am of words. The pictures are frightening. It doesn’t seem far fetched in the least bit that our culture, which has become anxious in the face of any potential danger, which has ceded a considerable amount of liberty and privacy to the state apparatus, and which has tolerated or encouraged police forces to acquire the arms of a militia… it’s not surprising to see a police force reacting this way. Lots of folks say that the police are trying to subdue people in their own yards. The photos are alarming.

This is horrifying on so many levels.

First, there is the complete opacity regarding the state’s interactions with Michael Brown. They aren’t releasing his autopsy. They aren’t going to identify the man who shot him. They are going to keep the details as dimly lit as possible. The state has disproportionate power to do so, as we have ceded to it the ability to keep things quiet when it deems it risky. The local government is acting like the federal government.

Second, the news outlets that tend to favor the “small government” rhetoric should be ALL OVER THIS, as this is clearly a demonstration of the militarization of the state against its citizens. Quiet. All is quiet. Of course all is quiet, the state went after those for whom small government types are often quick to blame. Anyone who disputes that the initial death was a consequence of racial bias does not have any ground to stand on for the lack of attention paid to this case. When the FBI stormed the Branch-Davidian complex, we were all watching. There is a hair-trigger response in our culture to blame a black person of causing their own misfortune, especially if that misfortune is delivered by the state. If it weren’t for Twitter, we’d know so very little.

The state is meant to represent the will of the collective. Let us be aware that it can easily become an oppressive force. It has more guns than the people do. It has more authority than the people do. It tends to represent the recourse we always point to: the law. We have our liberties in order to avoid becoming the Soviet Union – parallels which I’ve noticed in increasing amounts.

The expectation in these protests are that the protests will stand compliant and unarmed while the police aim heavy artillery at them, as if somehow this was reasonable or OK.

The expectation is that we’d be compliant and quiet about a complete lack of transparency regarding what appears to be the worst type of police misconduct: stealing a life. Those behaving honorably can be transparent without cost. Their opacity is convicting.

Sometimes uninvolved parties believe their safety is in the distance inherent to being at arm’s reach. I would beg to differ. The racial tensions and biases in Ferguson exist everywhere. Nearly all police forces are extraordinarily armed. This hasn’t happened in your community because the circumstances have not yet aligned. Frankly I am worried because the most readily accessible means of recourse, for me, are the law, and this is demonstrating the long-held truth that the law is not an institution to blindly trust. We need a cultural change, one in which we are less afraid of terror and more skeptical of the state. One where we learn to live braver so we can reclaim our civil liberties and reduce the total arms in our country. We need our authorities to be transparent. We need to be honest about the realities about racism in the United States. We need to stop believing our barbarism was exclusively in the past and work towards ending it in the present.

Most of all, we should not get too distracted by the comfort of beautiful days, forgetting what is.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Race

Why Are We Doing This? (Race&Church)

I post few photos of myself on the internet, so let me tell you something: I am white. My ancestry is a mix of somewhat recentish Italian immigrants, some German folks, and then there is an English line that has been in the United States since the United States has existed in its current political state. So I’m white. Very white.

Every church I have ever attended has also been largely white, and not by a slim margin. They have been so overwhelmingly white that other ethnic groups comprise of single-digit percentage points of the congregations. These churches include four Unitarian Universalist Churches and one Catholic one.

The Unitarian Universalist churches use a hymnal that takes songs from many religious traditions. Some of these songs are African-American spirituals that date from slavery. Sometimes the hymnal even says, “African-American Slavery Spiritual” or something like that. The church I attend sang one today. I cringed. As is typical of all the churches I’ve attended who sing African-American spirituals, there was a middle-class-presenting and middle-aged white person encouraging the audience to sway and clap in the style of Gospel singers, which is behavior completely contradictory to the usual norms of the congregation. I did not sing. I did not sway. I cringed more. It’s not a problem of this one church. All of the UU churches I have attended did exactly the same thing at some point.

I have no artistic opposition to African-American spirituals. They are lovely, lively songs. I appreciate the history behind them. I appreciate the soulful performances I have heard. I appreciate the compelling composition. I’m sure God, if God exists, accepts all prayers. We are human beings using human tools. I have a lot of opposition to a white congregation singing these spirituals as if they are another nice song to help us worship. It feels like an act of theft and disrespect.

I am white. This means that I, and the vast majority of my ancestors, experience the privilege of dominant race-membership. In America, this generally means an easier life where people presume the best of you. There are African-Americans who share my surname, so it is unfortunately likely that some of my kin were slave-holders, though I have no idea how closely or distantly related they are. Even if I do not have any family who held slaves, people like me (white) in the aggregate have easier lives than people who are African-American, thanks to slavery’s legacy.

African-American spirituals are songs which were written in a time of horrific oppression. These songs are the deployment of art as a coping mechanism in horrific times. Oppression and exploitation have oppressors and exploiters. Do you know who they were? White people, just like the vast majority of worshippers in the congregations using the songs.

When I imagine how it would feel to the composers of these songs to hear the descendants of their oppressors singing these songs, the only sense I could imagine is one of violation and of being robbed. These were songs written to cope with the actions of people like me in the aggregate, people who felt entitled to rob every single facet of being from people like the composers of this music, and now we feel entitled to their spiritual worship too.

It would be different if I were the minority white person welcomed into this style of worship by a Black congregation, or even a congregation with more than a token African-American presence. It would be different if the person leading the service shared some heritage with the composers of the music. This has yet to be the case. They are usually included context-free as part of a worship service about something entirely different.

It especially bothers me because one of the mechanisms through which racism perpetuates itself is how the White part of our population continually pretends that race is of no consequence and systematically ignores the ways that race leads to bifurcated experiences of American society. Racism persists in part because white people like to insist that impression is a facet of history, and deny its relevance to the present. That’s the problem: white people ignore the relevance of race and feel entitled to all parts of American culture, without needing to acknowledge their role in it.

How dare white people sing African-American spirituals while our police forces shoot Black teenagers.
How dare white people sing African-American spirituals when African-Americans are killed on the presumption of criminality by citizens?
How dare white people sing African-American spirituals when African-American men are sent disproportionately to prison on drug charges, despite similar rates of drug use?
I could go on. My point is that the oppression of African Americans has never has ended, and yet white people sing the songs.

I’m not sure if it is widespread ignorance on the part of UU congregations or an unwillingness to acknowledge how racially charged parts of our culture are. I tried to imagine what saying something would look like, and honestly, I could not predict any path which would make it a productive conversation. I suspect I’d be accused of being racist, like I was suggesting we ignore African-American cultural contributions with the speaker insisting that, “Oh, I don’t see color!” …As if ignoring a big part of someone’s identity and our country’s history is doing diversity a favor. At a church a long time ago, I remember someone saying that we should sing more of “those” songs to encourage “those” people to join us, as if listening to the descendants of your ancestor’s oppressors singing your heritage’s music would be welcoming. I am white; I cannot speak for African-Americans beyond the limitations of my empathy. It is a subject that I do not have any business asserting any authority because it is not my heritage, and I personally benefit from society’s racism.

There is a history-blindness going on. If we truly want to be a justice-seeking people, we should open our eyes to these uncomfortable truths. I don’t care that Unitarians and Universalists were often active abolitionists- that does not entitle us to cultural appropriation.

Racism persists in part because the oppression, appropriation, and entitlement are normalized among the benefiting groups. I fear that using African-American spirituals casually in our worship services casually perpetuates racism by perpetrating its invisibility.

I’d appreciate insight from other people into this, especially if you happen to be UU who is of an African-American background. As I said, this is my discomfort as a result of my awareness of social place and a desire to create an equitable society respectful of everyone’s history. Invisibility is hardly respectful; this does not seem much better.

14 Comments

Filed under Unitarian Universalism/Faith

This Life…

Thursday. I wake up alone at 6:30AM in Washington, DC. I pull the blackout curtains open and sunlight pours in. The hotel room has two double beds, likely one of the last ones that was available for the conference. My suitcase is on the second and I have my conference materials scattered across the desk. I’m energized and exhausted from the previous days. I have been immersed in my professional passions nearly non-stop for days, and the evenings were spent with friends and family that I rarely see.

I start the coffee maker, shower, get dressed, and pack all of my bags. I am wearing the only dress I have with pockets: a black button-down dress with a waist belt. I write a few notes in my journal and head downstairs with everything I brought. My purse is condensed to my pocketbook and my cellphone, which I put into my pocket.

I grab a bagel, coffee, and hard-boiled egg from the continental breakfast. The eating area is packed. I see an open seat and ask if I can join the table’s occupants. They are my fellow National Alliance to End Homelessness conference attendees. Get into a conversation about HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) and RHYMIS (Runaway and Homeless Young Management Information System) with a woman that I would later discover was the director of the Runaway Youth Services program at the United State Department of Health and Human Services. She’s incredibly kind and down-to-earth, in case you are curious. I’m joined by a former supervisor from Friends of the Night People, and we chat. I excuse myself to meet my current boss.

I get into a cab with him and the executive directors of two other organizations in New York State, and we go to Senator Schumer’s office to talk to his, and other NYS Congressional, staff about homelessness in NYS and HUD funding. We return to the hotel barely in time to be admitted to the ballroom for the final speeches of the conference.

This is the reason my purse had to be condensed; the First Lady was speaking and we were permitted to bring nothing more than a small purse. The speeches were all over the place. Becky Kanis’ energy and success were inspiring. The president of the Rescue Missions was great, and hopeful for me. The woman from Multonomah County was bizarre. She advocated not spending money on caseworkers, which is a violation of nearly every best-practice I know. I did not pay that much attention to the fellow from Los Angeles, still stunned about the caseworker comment. The First Lady, who is gorgeous in person, gave a speech clearly meant for the press corps. It wasn’t a terrible speech. It just wasn’t the impassioned and clever oration that Cory Booker gave the day before.

Then, it was over. We, with my other current supervisor, leave the ballroom and grabbed our luggage in the lobby, then a cab to the airport. We flew back to Buffalo and my other current supervisor gave me a ride home.

I walked into the door of my home and my daughter pretty much cheered when she saw me, and hugged me for ten minutes. She then forgot I was ever gone, and resumed playing. Will made me a plate of leftover lasagna, and we all ate together. It was wonderful. After we cleaned the kitchen, Will went to catch up on some deferred garden maintenance, and I took my daughter to the park, still wearing the dress with pockets. She ran and played, and then came home and we did the good night routine.

How did this become my life? I am currently living in the intersection of all my passions. Four years ago I just arrived in Seattle, confused about the next moves. Three years ago I was working for a start-up, uncertain about what I was going to study in graduate school, and battling a distinct feeling that I was faking it. Two years ago I was in the process of leaving graduate school and completely uncertain of which direction my life was going to be. I was confident that I was going to start an adventure, but it was yet to be seen if the career shift was wise. One year ago I was living in my family’s house, fresh of a cross-country move with my months-old daughter, anxious about what my career would turn out to be. And that day, I could be found at Delaware Park in Buffalo, chasing my daughter in the same dress that I listened to the First Lady hours before.

May I remember days like those when I feel like I am floundering, and when I feel like I am losing my way. A lot can change.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Personal