Terrorism, Refugees, and Thanksgiving


Photo copyright: Can Stock Photo

On this Thanksgiving week, check out that turban squash as you consider the current debate: Should the U.S. shut its doors to Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq in the wake of Islamic terrorists killing 130 people in Paris?

While reading about race and privilege, I came across this quote that also illuminates the refugee question.

Either we are committed to making a world in which all people are of value, everyone redeemable, or we surrender to the idea that some of us are truly better and more deserving of life than others, and once we open the door to that possibility, we cannot control it. … If we agree to accept limits on who is included in humanity, then we will become more and more like those we oppose.

— Aurora Levins Morales, author, from her book Medicine Stories. As a child, she was tortured by adults in Puerto Rico. She found a way not to hate them, so as not to become like them.

(Thank you to Miki Kashtan Ph.D., and to her Psychology Today blog post, for sharing that quote from her friend.)

So who are the refugees that some Americans want to keep out? Syrians are fleeing their homes because civil war has killed more than 240,000 people, including 12,000 children. Education, health care, and other infrastructure have been destroyed. Warring groups forcibly recruit children. If you were a citizen or parent there, wouldn’t you want to get out? These refugees are seeking safety. They are not the extremists who attacked Paris.

The L.A. Times editorial board pointed out yesterday:

Under the current resettlement process, potential refugees come almost exclusively through referrals from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which vets their backgrounds before deciding which country to refer them to for resettlement. Those recommended to this country are then scrubbed by U.S. security officers through interviews overseas and biometric background checks, a process that can take up to two years.

…. [Meanwhile,] a forged passport could gain instant access.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump not only wants to exclude Muslim refugees from Syria, but also to track U.S. Muslims in a database.

In a rare political statement, the U.S. Holocaust Museum called out the similarity to the ordeal of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. The U.S. government rejected thousands back then, fearing they were Nazi spies.

We’re days away from Thanksgiving — that feel-good feast celebrating native Americans who welcomed pilgrims who came here as religious refugees from England. Turban squashes and all.

I understand that people are afraid. But decisions based on fear can do more harm than good.

“If we agree to accept limits on who is included in humanity, then we will become more and more like those we oppose.”

Learn more (1:50 video):

Syrian Refugees – Rumors vs. Facts by HuffPost Politics

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But I’m not racist….

“I treat people equally. I oppose racism. I’m not racist.”

I’ve thought that. between-the-world-and-me_cover

But lately I’ve been reading some thought-provoking writing that shifted my perspective. One is the 2015 book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which Toni Morrison says is “required reading.”

Ask yourself: Do you believe in the reality of “race”? Do you think there are really bone-deep features of some people? Choosing to categorize people as different is one way that slave owners justified mistreating other human beings. Why are we still seeing people as “other” today?

Or consider how you label yourself. Do you believe yourself to be white? The author uses that phrase, “people who believe themselves white,” which got me thinking. I would check “white” on a form that asks race, without thinking twice. But definitions of race change over time and vary by country. There may be things that some people have in common with each other, but you also could say that race is made up.

“…race, while it has some relationship to biology, is not mainly a biological matter. Race is primarily a sociopolitical construct. The sorting of people into this race or that in the modern era has generally been done by powerful groups for the purposes of maintaining and extending their own power.”

“…For purposes of the laws of nine southern and border states in the early part of [the 19th] century, a ‘Negro’ was defined as someone with a single Negro great-grandparent; in three other southern states, a Negro great-great-grandparent would suffice. That is, a person with 15 White ancestors four generations back and a single Negro ancestor at the same remove was reckoned a Negro in the eyes of the law.”

“…What is a person of mixed race? Biologically speaking, we are all mixed. That is, we all have genetic material from a variety of populations, and we all exhibit physical characteristics that testify to mixed ancestry. Biologically speaking, there never have been any pure races – all populations are mixed.

— Paul R. Spickard, Ph.D., “The Illogic of American Racial Categories,” PBS Frontline.

If some people in power, such as some police officers, have abused and even killed people, who’s responsible? It’s too easy to say it’s only the individual who choked or shot the victim. What cultural norms/expectations made that possible? Who pays that individual’s salary? (Hint: We, the taxpayers, do.)

Or consider: How have you benefited from being white? Or from presenting yourself as white? Access to a good public school, perhaps, because decades of housing policies — funded by our tax dollars — segregate people and schools. Perhaps connections to a job or to a college. Or just the luxury of expecting, as you walk down the street or into a store in the middle of the day, that you’ll be welcomed and treated kindly. My parents never had to have “the talk” about how to act so that I won’t be treated as a possible criminal.

Society is set up by people. What can we, as individuals, do to change it?

Great reading or watching:

I, Racist essay by John Metta.

Video: White bias in color film, and then in face recognition software.

Twitter: #RacismEndedWhen

USA Today story about my hometown, Rochester NY: Three boys apparently arrested for standing while black (waiting for the school bus).

Would you be as quick to hire Lakisha as to hire Emily? Racial Bias in Hiring 2003

A related New York Times article 2015: Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions

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What if you didn’t view conflicts as a problem?

You could view conflict as a sign that someone or something is wrong. That attitude makes conflict something to avoid and the solution would seem to be to control the other person or people.

Or you could see conflict as natural, occurring because people care. Something that can be handled. And if handled by “win-win” methods, conflict can be enriching and can help create new ways to cooperate.

In a conflict, it’s important to see what you have in common. If nothing else, we’re all human. Stay connected to the other person’s humanity.

That was one eye-opening message I took home from the first night of a 6-week course being taught by Kit Miller and Malik Thompson from the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester.

It’s so easy to see conflict as a problem. It mucks things up, right? But how much happier life could be if we can see someone’s contrary view as a sign that he or she really cares about the issue. Look for each person’s underlying needs. Assume we can find a way to meet them that serves both of us.

The course: Nonviolent Communication, an approach and training created by American psychology Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.  (1934-2015). Special thanks to First Unitarian Church of Rochester for hosting the classes.


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Beautiful blue

Blue, I say.

That’s my favorite color.

Like water. Like sky. Like water reflecting sky.


Not sadness.





Today’s blog post brought to you by the color blue.

Seagull/sky photo by Tim Farnum. Other photos by Chris Swingle Farnum.

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Ms. Lori’s experience at School 22

Ms. Lori is among the many great volunteers at School 22 in Rochester, giving about 2 hours every week to help several second-graders, and one third-grader, 1-on-1 with their reading.

The problem: Other students in the class come up to her. “Can you help me today?” they ask. She doesn’t have time to work 1-on-1 with everyone.

If only there were enough volunteers. Certainly many people aren’t available between 8 am and 4:15 pm (the school day and the after-school program time). But there may be false ideas that get in the way.

Adults may fear that they have to have a teaching background. They don’t.

They might think they need a lot of free time to help. But there are unfilled needs that are just 45 minutes a week.

They might wonder what it’s really like. So I’ve created a 2-minute video showing Ms. Lori’s experience at School 22.

To watch the video, click here.

To learn more about this community-school partnership, click here.

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Solving urban education

P1000741 If you saw a child drowning in a river in front of you, you’d rescue the child, right? And then if there was another, and another? For 25 years, my church (First Unitarian Church of Rochester) has been reaching out a hand to city school students who need help to succeed in school – and in life. It’s critical work and it makes a difference in children’s lives.

I’ve been wrestling with the root problem: How do you prevent children from winding up struggling in the river? You want to go upstream. Stop whoever is pushing youngsters in, or fix the weak place where they’re falling in. But I don’t see one cause of urban education failure that can easily be fixed.

The long list includes broken families, lack of jobs, crushing poverty, teen pregnancy, child abuse, language barriers and the stress of a parent’s mental illness or drug/alcohol addiction. Don’t forget racism, prejudice, inequitable incarceration policies and unequal school resources. It’s not so easy to walk to school if your neighborhood is unsafe.

I think many people throw up their hands and try to ignore the river. But we need to consider our role, as a society, in creating the river. And lately the waves have gotten bigger with tougher standards.

Imagine a long staircase. Many poor, urban students start on the first step, arriving atImage kindergarten without knowing letters, how to count or sometimes even the names of colors. One study found that by the age of 4, children in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than the children of professionals. But in a middle-class setting, many children start kindergarten already about six steps ahead, so it’s not hard to get them to “proficiency” on, let’s say, the seventh step. When low-income students work hard and have great help from teachers and volunteers and climb from the first to the fifth step, they’ve made incredible progress. But they’re still failing in the eyes of the state. Now the state has raised the bar to expect everyone to reach the eighth or ninth step.

Why has our community created school district boundaries that effectively segregate poor students? How do we expect to educate students who start out so far behind, and have great stresses in their lives, at the same costs as more advantaged students?

While wrestling with the big picture, we can’t ignore the children who are struggling right now. The first step toward change is to form connections. By being in the schools, tutoring students during the school day, we get to know people and better understand the issues and the needs.

In the past two years, we’ve tripled the size of our school volunteer program.  I am proud of the dedicated work of more than 100 volunteers last year to help children climb out of the river and up the steps.

More volunteers are needed. For information, see www.rochesterunitarian.org/22UUCS.html

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Why I like writing

This week I interviewed a local artist about how she is evolving into a consultant. I created a text story and a viImagedeo for the Rochester Professional Consultants Network e-newsletter, which publishes at the end of this month.

As we talked about her unusual art form and about the artisans group she created, I was reminded why I enjoy my professional writing career.

I get to meet and interview fascinating people who do interesting work and have intriguing ideas. I have the privilege of telling their story so that others get to know them. And as in this case, when the person reads the story and says it’s exactly right, I have the satisfaction of a job well done.

Every story, just like every person, is unique. I appreciate that my writing work enables me to continue to  learn and grow.

August 2013 RPCN newsletter (including the article about artist Stefani Tadio), and video.

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