Friday, October 9, 2020

Retirement? Now?

I had not planned on retiring yet. Not this year. Not next. I taught at an urban college for 33 years. 35 seemed like a good number. Two more years to take that serious look at our "financial future" and "potential healthcare costs." Something my husband and I have never given much attention.

Besides, who in their right mind retires during an international pandemic? Who walks away from a secure tenured professorship in the midst of the worst national unrest since the mid-1800s? Who abandons financial security on the cusp of an election that will shape the future of our world as we know it?

Apparently, I do.

The District, consisting of three colleges including the one where I spent half my life, is in serious financial crisis. Rather than downsizing the top-heavy administration or reducing the inflated salaries of the chancellor, his ten vice chancellors and three presidents, they opted to reduce the tenured teaching staff. Inflated you ask? The chancellor makes $303K, thirty percent more than our state governor. Besides, reducing tenured faculty allows greater flexibility for future adjunct faculty layoffs.

But don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t forced to retire. None of us were (on my campus alone, nine tenured faculty have opted to leave). We were offered a tenure buyout (50% of 2020-2021 salary) with five weeks to make the decision and complete the retirement process. I cannot speak for the other eight, but I couldn’t teach for a year knowing that if I stayed home, I’d still receive half my salary. 

I will miss my students and all they taught me. I will miss having the opportunity to develop my online teaching skills this academic year with an eye toward building a hybrid English language program for immigrants and refugees when the campus eventually reopens. And I will miss participating in campus-wide efforts to create a truly antiracist environment.

But I am now retired. My head is spinning, and I am still trying to figure out how to structure my days. I have cycling and hiking, reading and writing, despite COVID. And best of all, by some inexplicable gift of synchronicity, my unexpected retirement coincides with the end of my daughter’s family leave and an offer she received to work dayshift. So, as she returns to Harborview ER, the joy of spending time with this little guy a few days each week will be all mine. How wonderful is that?!

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

When Empathy is Not Enough

At least once a week, maybe twice I cycle or walk Beach Drive in West Seattle. Every time I pass this memorial at Seacrest Park it gives me pause, brings tears to my eyes. I am often pulled to a stop by an invisible thread, to see, to read, to honor the dead. 

I do not know who created this memorial or even when. I do not know who periodically adds photos or changes the flowers. It does not matter. What I do know is that I photographed it on July 20. A month ago I took dozens of photos I never posted. So why now?

I was inspired by Michelle Obama’s words last night at the Democratic National Convention, by her challenge to move our empathy to action, action that will move our country toward a racially just home for all:

... it is up to us to add our voices and our votes to the course of history, echoing heroes like John Lewis who said, “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.” That is the truest form of empathy: not just feeling, but doing; not just for ourselves or our kids, but for everyone, for all our kids.

These photos in my phone have been a painful personal reminder of injustice, of violence, of hatred. But I have used my empathy for nothing. I have done nothing. Now, I share a few of them with a plea to vote, to request your ballot now and to vote early. 

I do not know if a new president can alone change the direction our country has taken for the past four years, but I do know that we cannot survive another four years on the same crash course we are on now. A course of racist and sexist violence and a denial of science that has led to over a 160,000 COVID deaths, a number that continues to grow.

As I stare into the eyes of my tiny White grandson, I want a better country, a more just world for him and for all the babies – Brown, Black and White – born during this time of COVID-19, of economic insecurity, of racial injustice.

These 186 people, young and old, were murdered. Some for their political voice. Most for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All for the color of their skin. 

This is not the country I want my grandson to inherit, a country with a long history of systematic racism. We must do better, be better. We must elect representatives who will listen, who will acknowledge and change the racist policies continuing to shape our country. Four hundred years of racist policies.

I believe my vote matters. I believe your vote matters.

I believe we can change if we listen beyond the headlines, if we read our history from all voices, if we question the beliefs held by the dominate White culture.

I believe we must change, if not for ourselves, for our children. For our grandchildren.


Friday, July 31, 2020

So Very Much to Learn


The Pacific Northwest summer soothes with days of rain and sun, of gray and brilliance. Yet this summer is unlike any other of my long teaching career. I am not basking in a period of rejuvenation, of cycling, of writing. Of simply enjoying my first grandchild. Instead it is a summer of COVID isolation and social unrest. 

It is a summer of change, and for me a time of intense study. I cannot totally disconnect from work because there is too much happening. So, I attend a few remote meetings each week, and I struggle to educate myself in order to understand the violence that fills our streets and the discord that questions the lack of social justice in the lives of my students, in the workings of my college, and in the structure my country.

I continue to work through my summer reading list, adding more titles as I go along. Earlier this spring, during my months of vision problems, I learned the joy of listening to audio books. Even though I can read again, I have continued the practice of listening, so I’m working through that list more quickly than I expected. So far, I’ve read: 

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
Heavy, Kiese Laymon
They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery  
Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad
Disgruntled, Asali Solomon
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin

Currently I’m reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Race, Empire,and English Language Teaching by Suhanthie Motha while listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (despite, or perhaps because of, John McWhorter’s critic “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility” in The Atlantic, July 15, 2020).
What have I garnered from all this reading? I’ll own that my understanding of the racial justice movement in America faded after Civil Rights. More recent events have made me aware of my ignorance of systematic racism. I decided to try to understand what has gone wrong, or rather what has always been wrong, for so many people in this country. I have found all of these books interesting in one way or another, but the most helpful of those I have dipped into so far is probably Michelle Alexander’s 2010 study of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in America since the early 1970s. 

Digging a bit deeper online, I learned that during a 1994 interview, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman was quoted as saying “the Nixon campaign had two enemies: ‘the antiwar left and black people.’” He then went on to explain “We couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.’” 

A few days ago, I came across the same quote on page 25 of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. It warrants repetition: “President Richard Nixon announced his war on drugs in 1971 to devastate his harshest critics--Black and anti-war activists. ‘We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,’ Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told a Harper’s reporter years later. ‘Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’”

So began the war on drugs, the results of which are still being felt almost fifty years later. According to the Pew Research Center, while overall imprisonment rates have declined since 2007, “In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults – nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites (272 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (823 per 100,000).

According to Prison Legal News, “In 2010, the percentage of all Americans with a felony record was 8.11 percent (including three percent who have served time in prison), but for black males the rate was 33 percent (including 15 percent who have been to prison). Additionally, while the absolute number of people with felony convictions increased threefold between 1980 and 2010, it increased fivefold for blacks during that time.

On June 11, 2020 ABC News posted an article titled “ABC News analysis of police arrests nationwide reveals stark racial disparity” stating “In an analysis of arrest data thousands of police departments voluntarily reported to the FBI, in 800 jurisdictions, black people were arrested at a rate five times higher than white people in 2018.

Mass incarceration – America’s latest form of legal segregation – is the new Jim Crow of Michelle Alexander’s book title, but how can this be legal? What about Constitutional rights? 

A few days ago, when my husband shared a HuffPost article titled “The Supreme Court Built America’s Broken Policing System And It’s Working Just As Intended,” more pieces of the confusing puzzle of systematic racism began to fall into place for me. It is a long, detailed article, by Paul Blumenthal which begins:

“Police and the politicians who protect them get most of the attention in the movement to defund or reform law enforcement. But there’s another, more powerful force that’s allowed law enforcement to use force on citizens, stop them without a warrant, lock them up for minor crimes and even raid their homes without a knock.

The Supreme Court has spent the last 50 years affirming the power of police to legally take such actions. The system built by officials and sanctioned by the court isn’t broken; it’s working just as intended.”

I feel my rosy colored glasses shattering. I have lived a life of guilt and empathy, aware that my white skin gives me privilege and security others do not have. Still, I have been blind to the depth of systematic racism, inequity, and violence surrounding me every day. The fact that I got through eighteen years of American education having never been introduced to James Baldwin speaks volumes. I still have so very much to learn.

Friday, July 17, 2020

A Reading Event in the Time of COVID

Since February 2010 a small neighborhood coffee house in West Seattle called C&P Coffee has hosted monthly readings by poets and other storytellers under the stewardship of Leopoldo Sequel. On the fourth Wednesday of every month these events have showcased two featured readers followed by community mic - an opportunity for any and all to share their work.

This community event, dubbed PoetryBridge, flourished for ten wonderful years, and I was honored to have participated a number of times both as featured reader and as an open mic-er testing out new material. With time, came structure and a new website. The 10th Anniversary celebration was scheduled earlier this year, and I was looking forward to reading in March.

Then COVID-19 hit.

I've since learned that Leopoldo is not a man easily stopped. In April, he took PoetryBridge online with weekly Zoom readings, monthly gatherings feeling insufficient during these stressful times. Curating a weekly reading event is no easy task, and I am grateful to him for all his hard work.

I am very pleased to invite you to the next PoetryBridge Zoom event on Wednesday, July 22 at 7:00 pm. I'm excited to be sharing the featured reading slots with the talented writer and teacher, Priscilla Long.

If you are interested in becoming a regular PoetryBridge community member and receiving weekly updates and invitations, just go the website and follow the instructions.

If you'd rather try it out first, I will have the Zoom link on Wednesday and am happy to share it with you. Just email me soon at aw@arleenwilliams.com, so I can best facilitate a mailing.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Isolation is the New Norm


The sun is rising, the rugosas are in full bloom and the raspberries need picking. So begins this beautiful summer day. 
The Ex-Mexican Wives Club is a memoir exploring my years working as an undocumented teacher in Mexico City in the early 1980s and reconnecting with the women I knew during that turbulent time It was released late last year. The holidays passed, and I did two wonderful readings in February, one at Third Place Books Ravenna and other at the Issaquah Library. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of all other planned events.

My events calendar is now empty but for two memoir writing workshops scheduled for September and October. Will those events meet the same end? Some libraries are beginning to reopen for limited loans and returns. If they move forward with events, will I feel ready to teach face-to-face, to be in public?

Seattle, like other cities around the country, is beginning to reopen, but I have yet to get a haircut since winter break. I find wearing a mask annoying, even in the grocery store, so I limit contact with others as much as possible. After all, I have a new grandson to protect.

I stare at my flowers, think about picking raspberries, and sip my morning coffee. I scratch items from my summer calendar, plug in earbuds to listen to The New Jim Crow, and embrace my isolation.

How are you filling your summer hours? If you’re looking for a unique read, you might enjoy The Ex-Mexican Wives Club. If you like it, please tell your friends, and as always,  I'm grateful for your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Does She Know What She’s Saying?


Two blond pre-teens cycle up the long incline of my West Seattle street. Doors and windows open to the late spring sun, I hear their laughter and chatter from the dining table where I work. I see them through my large front window.

“I can’t breathe” one hollers to the other. Laughter cascades down the street.

Does she know what she is saying? Do they understand the agony of those words, the pain they cause others as they waft through open windows?

I want to scream at them. I want to race after them, stop them, sit them down for a 400-year history lesson on systematic racism. But they are gone before I wipe my tears.

I have not been writing. The past four months have been a time of stress and struggle and surreal joy. I am a grandmother; my baby is a mother.

My daughter and her husband adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols and remain closed into their hospital room on Capitol Hill for the two-night hospital stay. They watch as protesters march to the East Precinct and chants of “Black Lives Matter” float from the street five floors below.

During the worst world-wide pandemic since the Spanish Flu and the most significant social upheaval in our nation since the Civil War, my grandson is born. This tiny innocent enters the world as a privileged white boy by no choice of his own.
I begin adding antiracist children’s books to my summer reading list. The list grows as I collect titles to educate myself in a struggle to convert a lifetime of white guilt and empathy into antiracist understanding and action.

Perhaps I could find antiracist books for pre-teens, books to put in the Free Neighborhood Libraries that seem to dot every other block of my middle-class neighborhood. Would the girls on the bicycles read them? Would their parents?

As the academic year closes, as my first quarter of online teaching comes to an end, I embrace the freedom to read and think. I look forward to long walks, long bike rides, and long hours watching my grandson grow. And yes, maybe I’ll squeeze in some writing, too.

This is a long summer reading list, and it's likely I won't get through all of it, but I intend to do my best. In no particular order, here goes:

So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
Heavy – Kiese Laymon
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
 - Ibram X. Kendi
How to be an Anti-Racist – Ibram X. Kendi
They Can’t Kill Us All – Wesley Lowery
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies – Resimaa Menakem
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood – Dani McClain
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin Deangelo
Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America – Jennifer Harvey
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson
Me & White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor - Layla F. Saad
The Truth About White People - Lola E. Peters

Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice (adapted for young adults) - Bryan Stevenson
Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness – Anastasia Higginbotham
Let’s Talk About Race – Julius Lester
A is for Activist – Innosanto Nagara

For help compiling this list, my thanks to PegasusBook Exchange, “13 Books You Should Read About Black Lives” as well as the recommendations of colleagues and friends.

If you have other titles to suggest, please share either in the comment box or email me at aw@arleenwilliams.com. Thank you!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Poetry & the Pandemic


We all have our crap to deal with during this dreadful pandemic, don’t we?

But despite the pandemic, despite my blurred vision, eye infection, and still tentative surgery appointment, despite the challenges of learning to teach online, despite the distance from my daughter during the final trimester of her first pregnancy and the fear of COVID exposure every shift she works at Harborview ER, the sun continues to shine, birds flutter in the front yard and bunnies hop in the back, and I’m very pleased to celebrate the close of National Poetry Month with my first poetry publications.
First came the publication of two poems, “Tree-Crook Nest” and “My Father’s Daughter,” in Chrysanthemum 2020 Literary Anthology, edited and published by Koon Woon and Goldfish Press with support from the Washington State Arts Commission.

Then, on April 5th, Celaine Charles included my poem “Public Pool” in her salute to National Poetry Month on her beautiful poetry blog, Steps in Between.

Today, I received this lovely email, the kind every writer longs to open, from Michael Broder, editor at Indolent Books:

Hi Arleen,
Thank you for submitting "Wild Rabbit" to What Rough Beast Covid-19 Edition. I posted the poem for April 29, 2020—Here's the link: https://www.indolentbooks.com/what-rough-beast-covid-19-edition-04-29-20-arleen-williams/
Best,
Michael

What better way to end a less-than-perfect month and get this writer back to her desk?!