Happy New Year! What’s your social justice resolution for the new decade?

By Divya Anand, Ariel FitzHugh, Noah Segal

The New Year marks a new beginning, a chance for us to perhaps take up the roads less traveled, the challenges we were not able to meet in the past or make new promises for us to keep. And this is not by accident but by design, as the holidays give us the much needed time to relax, reflect, and recoup in body, mind, and spirit. It is also the season of giving when we are encouraged to spread kindness, and the holiday cheer, donate, care for those less fortunate than us, and teach children to be kind. According to the Digital Giving Index, 31% of donations received by non-profits occur in December. So we are more inclined to toss loose change into buckets for causes, donate to our favorite non-profit with donations matched or doubled by a for-profit, and find time to volunteer in a food bank or a shelter. It is the season of “feel good”, where we give with not many expectations but to experience the joy of giving before the start of a New Year. 

In fact, Black Friday, coming on the heels of Thanksgiving, sets the stage for the season of giving. Stores have holiday sales both online and in-store with offers that we just cannot refuse. The Thanksgiving weekend from Thursday to Sunday, with the year’s best sales and discounts, is often also the time many families get to spend time together and buy necessities they cannot otherwise afford. The irony remains that Black Friday fervor always falls after Thanksgiving, an American holiday built on the historic fallacy of a happy meal celebrated together by Settlers and Indigenous Communities. 

The holidays help us contemplate and reflect about who we are, what we want out of life and what we need to change to meet those goals. This line of thinking is often accompanied with New Year resolutions, firm decisions to do or not do something. And for the majority of us, it marks the end of our giving and “social justice” efforts.

If we are so bold to commit to carrying on with our social justice efforts beyond the season of giving and buying, what can we do? As more often than not, the causes we supported in cash or kind, do remain. How can we think critically and get creative to increase the impact all year round? The following is a few suggestions:

  •  Model your social justice work throughout the year. Recognize the privilege when one gets to choose one month of a year to do the “giving” work. If we don’t engage in this work all year round we are teaching our children, that “charity” or “kindness” is a trait to practice once a year. Let’s make it a life-long practice!
  • Social justice causes need not all be about money. While money and other material donations are very important they are also often Band-Aid fixes that do not address or alter the root causes that create the “need for donations” in the first place. And for most of us while donating money or time for one month is what seems doable—there is more that we can leverage or give throughout the year. It is the power of our connections and networks and sharing those with people, who don’t have the same, to take action for themselves. It is offering our time to mentor someone. It is reaching out to staff in social justice organizations doing the work, about what they need the most.
  •  Revisit the causes that we were part of in the “giving” season. How can we continue to build authentic relationships? How can we listen in, learn, and amplify the voices of those who are directly affected?  How can we make sure their own voices are heard while offering the resources, networks, and expertise we have? 
  • At every chance, reading and educating ourselves on the systemic gaps that have created situations of inequities for the causes/organizations we support is very important. It could be at dinner conversations or at conference intervals that we might find a kindred soul who may join our cause. Or it could be for a grant proposal that the staff may need some additional help. And more importantly, it would be for us to learn and never be the expert on the lived realities of people who are different from ourselves.
  • Reflecting on the ways, we may inadvertently be complicit in creating and sustaining inequities is another step. It may be as small as changing the way we shop for our food or how we celebrate certain holidays.
  • Most importantly, rewiring our thinking—are we “giving” to feel good for ourselves or to make an actual change? How do we ensure our efforts are impactful and equitably? And who can we partner with to make the maximum impact? Working backward from the impact to the actions we need to take, is key. Our “feel good” intentions alone may not go so far in changing people’s lived realities in any meaningful way.
  • Operating from a sense of humility is another key step to engage in social justice as a life-long practice. It is important for us to realize that no matter how much we give or educate ourselves—it is not about us—our expertise or resources do not trump people’s lived experiences. We are not the “saviors” who get to decide “what people need” or decide on what “help is required” with the expectation that people need to be grateful for what we “give” or we need to be “appreciated” for our “giving”.
  • Set the goal of decentering ourselves and investing time and effort to build relationships and trust. Let it be something that is part of our lives, all the time, not something that is outside of our reality that we can choose to engage with or not.

On that note, Happy New Year and a Happy New Decade for Social Justice and Anti-racism to all you folk out there! 

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MADE IN MEDFORD: Community Building Examples

We are so thrilled to share our first community recipes fundraiser calendar, “Made in Medford!” This calendar is brought to life by the effort, time and commitment of a bunch of residents in Medford, MA. The idea for this calendar fundraiser came from one of our advisors Kate Godin, a postdoc fellow at Harvard and an officer at the EHS Biosafety Program at MIT. (Kate is also the brains behind our gender and robot activity, soon to have its rerun at the Cambridge Science Festival in April 2020! Keep an eye out for it!).

The idea for this calendar project took inspiration from the Hubb Community Project, and the publication of Together: Our Community Cookbook to generate funds for the 2017 London Grenfell fire victims. It was supported and promoted by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. In the “Foreword” to the book, she touched on how cooking together melds identities in a shared space and builds connections, reflecting on the universal need to connect, nurture, and commune through food, in crisis or joy. It is this spirit and idea of a community cooking fundraiser that brought alive this calendar project.  And for each of us, it was an opportunity for the community to come together, exchange ideas, and learn from each other, while sharing stories of our families, cuisines, and cultures.

We shared our ideas with Dr. Marie Cassidy, Director of the Medford Family Network and community leader extraordinaire. Marie connected us with Lisa Tonello, the Resident Services Coordinator at Medford Public Housing who came on board from our first meeting and has been our biggest supporter making this project possible for all of us. From inviting us to the Thanksgiving Gathering at the public housing to organizing meetings and cooking sessions, Lisa was at the forefront every step of the way.

From the very outset, there were a few guidelines we set for how the project was going to unfold. Our role was to facilitate the creation of a community group, who would then drive, own, and benefit from this Project. And we laid out a tentative plan to: 

  • Identify a group of residents interested in leading and organizing the cooking class.
  • The resident group decides on the dishes they would like to showcase.
  • The recipes will be collected over the course of the year with us helping with cooking demonstrations to collect the recipes. (We were to be the extra pair of hands to help from chopping up vegetables to cleaning the kitchen.)
  • Solicit a local organization or volunteer to photograph the event/s.
  • Culminate with the production of a fundraising calendar featuring the recipes and photographs from the cooking class.

Our hope is this fundraising effort can be sustained annually with new recipe contributions from both new and old residents.

Local businesses Plough & Stars, Wegmans, and Whole Foods came through with gift cards for ingredients as did Betsy Lenora who volunteered her time to photograph the dishes for us. It was over the course of a year we had multiple meetings from planning meetings to cooking demonstrations to photography and collecting recipes, to a community potluck where all the dishes were shared! We sure, also, had glitches and gaps, and we hope to learn and remedy them as we move forward. We had delays with printing and shipping, and we hope we can find a local printer for next year. 

And why does this story needs to be told…

We felt that this experience needed to be shared as it was inspired by another community fundraising project from across the world, and we hope it encourages other individuals and communities to engage in similar efforts. As a social justice advocacy company, it was important to us that this project centered and showcased community residents, from its design to execution, where they were the decision-makers at every step of the way. The project enriched us and our families in so many different ways, building community, sharing food and stories and forging friendships across all age groups and cultures. The project truly showed us the beauty of operating from a space of cultural humility and steering clear of charity/savior mindsets. And we share this experience, hoping to inspire others as we approach the New Year. We hope we can do this next year and we hope there are many others doing the same with us!

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Child’s Play: Gender, Toys, & Career Paths

Children engaged in the GaiaConnections Child’s Play activity at the 2019 Juneteenth celebration

By Divya Anand & Kate Godin

Imagine you are rushing to a birthday party for a child. You forgot to pick up a gift. What are the chances that you’d pick a gender color-coded toy matching the gender of the child? If you are not conscientious about gender stereotyping, chances are quite high that you will pick blue if the child identifies as a boy, or pink, if the child identifies as a girl. And chances are quite high, that you’d pick a toy that mirrors play with traditional gender role stereotypes—pretend “makeup” and tutus will be in the pink “girls” section, and cars and guns in the section with the blue “boy” toys.

What and how does this gender color-coding affect the ways in which we raise our children, whatever the gender they identify with? In 2017 the toy industry had 21 billion in sales, and toys were found to be more gendered than in the 1970s. The “gendering” of toys marketed for girls versus boys means that adult selections of toys for children often unconsciously mirror this differentiation. We also buy into the popular belief or bias that children identifying as girls or boys like different toys. Reality is more complicated and by a multiplicity of factors.

“Girl toys” are mostly associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skills, while “boy toys” are more aggressive, competitive, and thrilling. Research tells us that stereotypical girl toys (dolls, accessories, make-up, jewelry, kitchen sets, etc.) help develop verbal skills and the ability to string together complex processes. For example, picking up a doll, dressing it, making pretend food, feeding it, and putting it to bed, fosters sequential learning abilities–skills more attuned to learning humanities and social science subjects. “Boy toys” (building blocks, vehicles, robots, etc.) stimulate action, reasoning, and strategy that develop spatial intelligence—skills critical for success in fields like science and engineering—honing ‘executive functions’ and higher levels of thinking.

Exposure of children to gender-typed toys thus plays a significant and yet unconscious role impacting children’s cognitive and social skills, their perception of self and their career aspirations. Studies in neuroplasticity show that if adults unconsciously, steer children towards gender-typed toys, they influence how their brains and minds grow on a physiological level, directing them to particular (gendered) interests and skills, and in turn, career paths. Another outcome is the lack of focus on emotional literacy for children identifying as boys. Exposing children to a range of toys that provide a diversity of learning possibilities lead to a more balanced field for nurturing their interests and skillsets. What matters is to keep the door open for gender awareness, counter stereotypes in the roles and toys that children are exposed to and most importantly, have critical conversations on their choices and differences of all kinds.

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ELECTION COMMENTARY: Why are there no black, indigenous, or people of color candidates running in Medford?

The candidate pool for the 2019 elections for Medford’s School Committee, City Council, and mayor include very few, if any, people of color. While the city’s overall population is around 70 percent white, the public schools have 48 percent of students of color, and that proportion is projected to increase.

In addition, West Medford remains one of the last neighborhoods with a rich history and presence of African Americans in Massachusetts.

Why then do we not have a single candidate who is Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color (BIPOC)? What barriers exist for BIPOC candidates from contesting in elections or for that matter, why is their absence in city elections not a topic of discussion? Are we to assume that there are no candidates who are viewed as capable of running or are there systemic barriers in place that do not allow access to power for BIPOC in Medford? If you think there is no one capable of running, are you saying that BIPOC are lacking in ability and are not equal to everyone else? If you think there are barriers in place for POC, why are you not acknowledging and addressing it?

Make no mistake, Medford like the rest of the U.S. owes much to the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves. It is explicitly visible in Medford via the Royall House, Pomp’s Wall, and the Slave Memorial. The “nation of immigrants” is a grand narrative meant to override and make invisible the labor, lives, and stories of those who were forced to work without financial compensation and the most basic of human rights.

Today, African Americans continue to be affected by the legacy of slavery as it is manifested in institutional, structural, and everyday racism, whereas the fruits of their labor accrue to those who inherited the wealth created by chattel slavery. This legacy continues in the gross underrepresentation of teachers of color to match student demography in schools to the lack of politicians of color representing the diversity of the city in City Hall chambers, to the city government and the police force.

The idea, pull up by the bootstraps or meritocracies do not work when certain folks are denied bootstraps or have barriers placed from accessing them. The argument that “there are not enough qualified candidates” reveals institutional racism that disallows and prevents people of color from equally accessing the resources and opportunities to be qualified. It also ignores the fact that the “qualifications required” were written and administered by those who have held power historically and continue to do so.

So then why are there no BIPOC candidates in Medford? Why do many African Americans and other families of color still continue to suffer discomfort each time they walk in and view the 1939 mural at the Medford Square Post Office with no interpretive signage? And why do people who do not suffer that same discomfort have an equal say in it? Why did the school psychologist at the Medford High School resign, citing racism as the reason for leaving in June this year? Why are we informed in the city website that Medford was founded in 1630, erasing the presence of the indigenous communities who lived here before colonization?

Why do I meet children of color from the schools who share stories of being bullied in the name of their skin color to being suspended without paperwork? Why do I hear African American parents share their sheer uneasiness over celebrations of Dr. Seuss in Medford schools when “Read Across America” has itself turned away from these works following several publications on the racist tropes in the stories? Why do they feel uncomfortable speaking up?

All of this speaks to the overt and covert ways race continues to play a role in Medford. All of this points to a pattern of making invisible the voices of BIPOC. And that many white people would jump to argue otherwise and feel they are qualified and entitled to do so, proves my point. So the lack of candidates shouldn’t surprise anyone. But what is shocking is the number of folks who speak in favor of diversity and equity, and yet there is no change in the horizon for BIPOC to have access to power.

We cannot absolve ourselves of racism in our schools by citing there are only 18 percent of teachers of color in the U.S. and hence we cannot have teachers representative of the student demography in Medford. Using that as an excuse, to not acknowledge and intentionally change that in our schools, is partaking of the same racist systems that continue to exclude people of color. There are schools across the nation, which recognize the absolute necessity of staff of color, which are intentional about hiring diverse staff and have succeeded.

Studies show if a black student has just one black teacher by third grade that student is 13 percent more likely to enroll in college and those who had two black teachers were 32 percent more likely. In fact, having teachers of color is beneficial to ALL students as their class experiences help counter stereotypes, combat bias and groom students for success in an increasingly diverse world both personally and professionally. The recent rise in online recruitment of white youth by alt-right and white supremacist groups targeted at schools and colleges should be another reason for us to sit up and take action.

Although we have more than one candidate standing on equity platforms, one wonders how committed they are to equity and social justice beyond it being the words du jour to seek votes. The tragedy is that however well-meaning our equity intentions, intentions don’t matter if we don’t have a basic understanding of equity. Ergo, intentions will not yield equitable impacts, informed actions that yield outcomes, do.

By now, some of you will be Googling or cursing, or both, to find out who the heck I am. Well, I am an East Indian immigrant, with a doctorate in cultural sociology, teaching at an educational institution in Boston, running an organization that does social justice and equity training (your SJW warrior), and a parent to an 8-year-old, living in Medford. Rest assured, I recognize that I am an Asian American woman who enjoys a lot of privileges due to my educational and financial background, but I have also experienced prejudice as a woman, a person of color, and an immigrant.

Why do I designate myself as the person to ask these questions about Medford’s candidates and elected officials? The answer: there is no one else asking them. I ask these questions as a person of color standing on the platform of the privilege my educational and financial background grants me. So here is my call to action to candidates in the upcoming elections, both incumbents and newbies.

1. If you do not have the lived experiences of people of color, you DO NOT represent the diversity of Medford, or speak for them, unless expressly asked to do so. In other words, you lack the expertise and experience to speak with relevance and knowledge. Your role is to listen, help them reclaim and offer spaces for them to use their own voices.

2. Build relationships and trust with communities of color not represented in City Hall. Go to them, make them feel welcome, gain their trust, and recognize that the places (of power) you navigate are not welcoming spaces for many of them.

3. Do not hire people of color only because they are people of color. Unless you have their informed consent to be included or heard, your inclusion of them is mere tokenism that minimizes their merit and talents. If you do hire or work with them, make sure they have the space to be themselves and can air their opinions without fear of repercussion even though their views may make you extremely uncomfortable.

4. Embrace your discomfort. Lean into it. Ask yourself why you feel uncomfortable.

5. Recognize the comfort you do feel and contemplate how and why you might feel as comfortable as you do.

6. Check your assumptions. For each action you take, take a closer look at the impact of your actions rather than your intentions.

7. Check yourself for “performative alyship” or “ally theater” where you talk the talk shouting from the rooftops on social media and elsewhere, but do not follow with actions.

8. When you are “listening to” or “speaking for” BIPOC, is your focus on making yourself look good or will you make decisions and actions that spur real change in power or influence?

9. Do not rely on your Black or Brown coworkers to teach you about anti-racism. Do not rely on their emotional labor to educate you. Don’t ask them to relive their experiences of racism to enlighten you. Do the work yourself. If you still can’t find answers, say you tried and acknowledge the price and labor a POC has to expend to educate you.

10. Learn the difference between prejudice, discrimination, and racism.

11. Understand the differences between systemic, institutional, internalized and interpersonal racism. Reflect how it exists in your world and what you can do about it.

12. Your role is not just to “listen” or crown yourselves as “spokespersons” or “allies”, if you do not have the lived experience of BIPOC. What you can do is amplify the voices of BIPOC, break barriers for them, and at every opportunity, step aside to create a platform for them to speak their own truth. That is how you use your position if you want to work for diversity, equity, inclusion, or whatever the name you give it.

Writing this also cost me a lot of emotional labor while risking my reputation for “not being nice.” But this is the work that needs to be done and unless you step up there is no one else in your position willing to do the right thing. And you or I do not get any brownie points for doing the right thing. Plus, this work is always in progress. There is going to be criticism from BIPOC for what I have written and for the work you will be doing. I welcome the criticism. This work is a continuum until we can ensure equality for all.

For equality for all we need equitable solutions as all of us do not start at the same line. The history of this country and this city testifies to it. Let us change this history.

Dr. Divya Anand is an author, educator, and breaker of status quos, residing in Medford, Mass. She is the founder and director of research at Gaia Connections, a social justice and equity consultancy and a senior faculty at Cambridge College, Boston.

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