Friday, August 18, 2017

There Is No Space Between Us

One night, when I was the manager at the Drop Inn Center, I had to kick a very large and aggressive man out of the shelter for sexually assaulting one of our female clients.

Typically, when you are kicking someone out of a shelter, or having a difficult meeting with them--one where you suspect their ire may get up--you make sure someone else is present, and you are in a place with very clear exits.

I was about 28 at this time, and cocky. I would often do one-on-one discipline/exit with a variety of unpredictable characters.

I didn't behave differently in this situation. I asked the large man if I could talk to him, took him into the lobby of our intake area--where it was just he and I, and the only exit out of the room was through him. I told him the news. He didn't deny it. He looked down for a second, and then locked eyes with me. "So I'm out, right?"

"Yes." I said in a neutral tone.

He stepped up to me, and put his chest in my face. Our bodies were touching.

"You're in my space." I said, suddenly feeling the weight in the room.

"There is no space between us." he said.

What followed involved me trying to get away from him, him following me, chasing me, cursing and threatening me, telling me he was going to break my back (and I believed him). Eventually a more seasoned co-worker got hip to what was going on, and slid himself between the two of us, coaxing the man outside with a cigarette and the observation that, 'You don't want to go back to jail, man'.

I had a tall pair of brown work boots that I always wore in those days, and I was literally shaking in them.

I learned from that lesson--I am a hard learner: rather than following good advice, I usually need to leave a little blood on the floor before I find myself accepting basic wisdom--and from then on, I had someone else present during those tough conversations. I also worked on my delivery, and built up some empathy for the people I interacted with.

One thing that has stuck with me above all else from that night, almost in a kind of spiritual way, was that ominous threat: "There is no space between us."

Over time, as I recovered, I learned to respect what a cool line that is. When I would tell the story of that night, the impetus of my telling would shift from, 'Man, that was scary, and that's how I learned to not act like a cowboy', to 'Damn. That was an absolutely awesome and terrifying line. I wish I could pull off that level of intimidation in a pinch!'

And the line shifted even more after that. My son was having a bad day one day, and didn't want to talk to me. I gave him his space for awhile, but he seemed really down. I did some deductive reasoning, sat down with him on his bed in his room, and proposed my guess as to what might be bothering him. He looked at me, teared up, and hugged me. He asked me how I guessed. "There's no space between us', I said.

It was a transformative moment.

I have had the opportunity to use the line a few more times since then, but it has also become a rallying cry and motto with me and the boys. Whenever we are separated for awhile, we say it to each other: 'There is no space between us'. Whenever we are feeling lonely in this world, we realize we are not alone, because there is no space between us.

It is funny and strange how we are able to use life experiences, and appropriate language that was intended in a wholly different fashion, to build and move forward.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Social Work Conversations

A young black client of mine recently told me that he didn't understand why other black people hated white people. 'Slavery was forever ago, and there are white people like you out there, so why are they mad?'

My response? 'Don't let me off the hook.'

It's so easy to see a fairly evolved white person as an ally. But ask yourself what it costs a white person to be an 'ally'. The answer is that it costs nothing, and the reward is great. If I'm not a total open racist, I get rewarded for it. I'm 'woke'. I don't have to answer for systemic discrimination. I told this kid that I was glad he liked me, and I like him too, but don't let me off the hook. What do I do to change the system other than posting something on Facebook every now and then, or show up at the random rally? I am not your ally, because while I may be concerned about the way the police treat you, or by the way you have to work extra hard to access the privilege I glided into, what have I given up? I'm being rewarded for honoring the basic lessons we all learned while watching Sesame Street, although I haven't put in half of the work. Yes, young man, don't let hatred cloud your heart, but please understand that I am not your ally. I am a white man who has benefited from a system designed to promote my race and gender, and although I may like you, I will never give up my own position for you, and I will only help you until it cuts into my own bottom line. Be your own ally. Don't look for others to boost or improve you. Don't let hatred and anger make you ugly, but be realistic: I am not the one who is going to boost you to the next level, and I will never give up my position in order to advance your own.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Radical Islamic Terror:It's a Thing, Liberals

I feel like I understand the liberal concern with using the phrase 'Radical Islamic Terrorism'. They feel like it marginalizes and 'others' a minority group, and does a disservice to Islam as a religion. I also think this concern is a mistake. Christians have had to deal with the phrase 'radical Christianity' for years. The 'right' and the 'left of our political spectrum has also had to endure having the word 'radical' ascribed to their particular worldviews. Where was this concern then? The fact is that there is such a thing as 'radical Islamic terror', and it is something our country needs to be concerned with. Maybe it is blown up and used as a tool by the right to bolster their own power, but it is real. To acknowledge the radical element of an ideology is not an insult to the foundation ideology. It is a radical element of that ideology. It is acceptable to note this. By being offended by this phrase, liberals not only give cover to radicals within that religion, they also cede the ground of reasonableness to the opposition. Also, by adding this phrase to their stable of protected-class no-no words, they do a disservice to deservedly protected classes, like LGBTQ, racial minorities, women, and the handicapped within the zeitgeist. All of these are natural orientations. Radical Islamism is a chosen worldview. Islamophobia is a justifiable term, because it pertains to the wholesale fear and delegitimization of an entire religion, and usually extends to a certain kind of racism and xenophobia. There is nothing wrong with using the term 'radical Islamic terror'. Let's take the words one at a time. I am personally a radical leftist. Is the word radical wrong? No. Is the word leftist wrong? No. Personally, I don't even think all acts of terror are always wrong. Think of Harper's Ferry. So what's wrong with accepting the phrase 'radical Islamic terror? It's a legitimate descriptor of an actual movement, and it's a descriptor liberals haven't hesitated to use on other radical branches of an ideology. In the popular imagination, the liberal refusal to accept this phrase looks a lot like either collusion, or pollyannishness. This gives your adversaries the ideological high ground. Accept the term, and learn how to talk about it while making distinctions you feel need to be made. That's the only way to make this world and this country safer and better. Of course, I'd love to hear dissenting views.