Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates on race and mass incarceration

Photo credit: Adam Schwallie, Western Herald
In my role at the Western Herald, I occasionally have the opportunity to meet amazing people who visit Western Michigan University. This semester, Ta-Nehisi Coates visited WMU, and I had the chance to speak with him prior to his speech. He was wonderful - very humble and down-to-earth, and he made time to speak with student journalists.
Here's the article I wrote for the Herald about the event.
On Tuesday, Nov. 3, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to an audience of 2,500 in Miller Auditorium on race, mass incarceration in the war on drugs, and made a compelling case for reparations.
Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic. His book, “Between the World and Me” was a 2015 National Book Award finalist and he is a recent winner of the McArthur Genius Grant. Coates is amongst the most notable writers on race in America today. His visit to Kalamazoo was sponsored by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and was part of their yearly meeting.
Prior to his speech at Miller, he spoke to student journalists privately at Kalamazoo College about his literary influences, which included hip-hop. “They were making it beautiful, and by beautiful, I don’t mean sexy, I don’t even mean glamorous. I mean showing the life and the humanity under the oppression, and they’re so textured and so layered.”
When asked about his ideas of the future of race relations he admitted to not being able to know. “I have no idea, you know that? It’s very hard to articulate, I mean I wouldn’t have told you we were going to have a Black president, so I’m probably the wrong person to go to for predictions.”
He also mentioned that “Between the World and Me” was the culmination of years of conversations between Coates and his son, who is a teenager. “The process of writing was when I sat down, but much of what was in the book was what we had been talking about for years.”
 Later in the evening at Miller Auditorium, Coates centered his speech on the effects of mass incarceration and the war on drugs in African American communities, saying “You guys have heard a lot of words about mass incarceration, but I think it’s very important to contextualize exactly what we mean by that. The United States accounts for only 5% of the world’s inhabitants, and yet it accounts for 25% of the world’s entire prison population.”
He went on to say, “This has had incredible effects on black communities. For black males, prison is no longer a rare experience, it is almost as common, or just as common, or more common as going into the military, as going to college, as joining a labor union. Prison is now normal. It’s just a part of your life cycle. If you’re an African American born in this generation today, and you drop out of school, you have roughly a 60% chance of eventually going to prison. It’s become a rite of passage for black males in this country.”
 Coates said that for many people, time in prison causes them be unable to find jobs and to drop out of society. “The problem is, when you drop out of society, you don’t go by yourself. You take your family with you, and so when folks come back from prison, for instance, or if folks are arrested in public housing, depending on where you’re in public housing, your family can be kicked out, your family can be disqualified for food stamp programs. When you come back you can’t get access to food stamps. Perhaps you have some notion of improving yourself when you get out of prison, but you can’t get access to Pell Grants to go to college. A whole suite of programs that we normally allow for American citizens, we immediately disqualify for folks who go to jail.”
Coates explained how mass incarceration has a major effect on families of incarcerated people. “I spent some time here in Michigan, in Detroit talking to families. It was nothing like hearing the mother, as I did, of a 16-year-old boy who’s gone off to jail. The mother I talked to, she was already on disability herself. She’s having to send money into this prison, into this kid’s life so he can deal with his own upkeep. She’s having to pay for phone calls so that she can have basic contact with him. So when he was sent to jail, it wasn’t like the system just punished him, it punishes his mother to. It radiates out.”
Coates pointed out the sharp contrast between the public’s response to growing heroin abuse amongst white people, and crack cocaine in the 1980’s. “There was a piece in the New York Times about a week ago. It was about the rise in heroin among more white people, and there was a kind of humanity that was reflected when folks were asked about these heroin addicts that was totally alien to me. I lived through the era of crack, and I remember what the response was to crack, and it was nothing the humane ‘we need to help folks, we need to be compassionate,’ it was nothing like that.” He questioned this difference, and pointed out that race was the primary difference between crack and heroin epidemics.
Coates then moved onto the topic of reparations, which he has written about for The Atlantic. He argued that for generations, African Americans have been working for and paying taxes into a system that does not serve them equally, and that a long history of mistreatment cannot be ignored.
He said “The notion that black people don’t deserve the same treatment as white people in this country is literally as old as the country itself.”
He also pointed out that much of the wealth in America was built on slavery, and that African Americans who are descended from slaves deserve a portion of that wealth. “The four million black people who were living in the south in 1860, under slavery constituted the largest asset, the largest pool of wealth in any area in this country. So you could have taken, in 1860, all the railroads...all the productive capacity of the country together and put it together, and it would have been worth less than the four million enslaved black people.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Terry Gross is amazing. That is all.

Today, the New York Times Magazine published a profile of Terry Gross, and it confirms my belief that Gross is amazing, wonderful, literally everything I want to be when I grow up.
Over the years, Gross has done some 13,000 interviews, and the sheer range of people she has spoken to, coupled with her intelligence and empathy, has given her the status of national interviewer. Think of it as a symbolic role, like the poet laureate — someone whose job it is to ask the questions, with a degree of art and honor.
The article examines not just Gross but the interview format itself, and why we feel drawn to and comfortable with her as an interviewer, and specific memorable interviews that she has done.
The interview wish is as old as the form itself. Journalistic interviews in the United States increasingly began to appear in the 1860s. Before that, when reporters talked to people, they typically didn’t quote them. Once interviewing started, it became a craze. It had its own practitioners, often women, who were thought to be better at drawing people out. Henry James’s journalists were almost all ‘‘interviewers,’’ and his characters, like Selah Tarrant in ‘‘The Bostonians,’’ crave their scrutiny: ‘‘The wish of his soul was that he might be interviewed,’’ James wrote.

At first the interview was regarded as a particularly American phenomenon — pushy, but fair too, because it involved the cooperation of the interviewee, not just a sneaky reporter. The practice shifted radically after World War II. Television gained popularity — the age of the broadcast interviewer began. And psychoanaly­sis — that other great innovation in opening people up — was being practiced more widely.

Gross’s interviews have often been compared to therapy. That’s in part because of her seemingly neutral stance, but also because of the feeling of safety she gives her interviewees. Once in a while, a guest confesses to Gross that he’s confiding something for the very first time. ‘‘I don’t know that I’ve said that to anyone,’’ the ‘‘Project Runway’’ host Tim Gunn told Gross in 2014, of spending time in a psychiatric hospital as an adolescent. Gross’s response was as affecting as Gunn’s story. She handles confessions quietly, acknowledging the weight of what’s been said without drawing undue attention to it. 
I'm so interested in the way people fantasize about their interview with Gross. I sometimes imagine that conversation, but I naively assumed that was just me - I feel like my tiny, private world has been invaded by other people wishing they could have an interview with Gross too.
‘‘My No. 1 fantasy of all time is to be interviewed by Terry Gross.’’‘‘I have gone so far as to rehearse answers to specific questions. … ’’‘‘Every single time I hear a Terry Gross interview, I wonder what it would be like for her to do some research on me and do an interview.’’

Saturday, October 10, 2015

SiTE:LAB Rumsey Street Project is Amazing

It's no secret that I think SiTE:LAB is amazing. This year, Rumsey Street Project blew my mind. Rather than taking up a whole building, they took over an entire block of abandoned buildings, including several houses, a garage, and an old church.

This was the inside of a building once owned by the church next door. It's been abandoned for several years.
This wrap showed the entire inside of the building.

 This building was covered in graphite, with images projected on the windows that weren't boarded up.

 This church was fascinating - church buildings retain some remnants of their original purpose, and it's sort of ghastly.

 This house was strange, and felt like it was this curated display of personal belongings. Like an altar to someone who had to run away.

This garage was a mismash of household objects, in multiples for effect.

 These nails were accompanied by a video of the artist, smashing them lyrically.

After filling out a sheet of arbitrary information, visitors recieved a large, colored sticker, and placed in on the black and white photo that corresponded to their sticker. This yellow one in the middle was mine.
The photos covered the walls.
 I love the way this house felt like it's own little island, untouchable.
This aluminium structure was attached to an old ceiling fan, rotating and casting shadows throughout the day.
It's fascinating to see how different artists handle similar spaces, and how they honor the pasts of those spaces. I'm also interested to see how they come together into a cohesive venue. It's changed over the years, and they've integrated performance aspects into the work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Lady Biz: Six Bloggers to Follow

One of my long-term goals is to start a business. Right now, I think this business will be a public relations firm that focuses on working with non-profit clients. I talk about this often, because I believe that connecting with other people who have similar goals is important. I also spend a lot of time reading blogs written by women who own businesses. I hope to learn from them, to understand how I can succeed, and some of the challenges I'll probably face.

Here are my favorites:
And Kathleen at Braid Creative - I've been following Kathleen for a long time, way before she started Braid. She's a graphic designer and coach for creatives. Kathleen is super driven and someone who I see as being able to balance a career that she cares deeply about with a strong personal life. She also talks about small business on Being Boss, which is a great podcast.
Sarah Von Bargen blogs at Yes and Yes - Sarah does content strategy, and she has a wonderfully funny, smart blog. I admire the way she blends the two and never seems like a sell-out.
XO Sarah - Sarah is a web designer and aerialist. In the past year, she's expanded way beyond her web design business to include more passive income products - things like ebooks and online courses, where the equation changes from time spent working * hourly rate = $ to product * people who want it = $$$. It's been really fascinating to watch this transition and understand how that could apply to other types of businesses.
Nubby Twiglet at Branch - Shauna is a graphic designer who also teaches people how to blog with The Blogcademy. I love Shauna's aesthetic and the way she's followed her passions and found a way to work with people who are like-minded. In self-helpy language, I think they call this "finding your tribe."
Chelsea Fagan at The Financial Diet - I've been following Chelsea's blog for a while, and I read her book, "I'm Only Here for the Wifi," right when it came out. The Financial Diet is a blog about personal finance for women. Personally, I find the content to sometimes be a little too focused on things that are conventionally feminine. Often, there are posts about how to save money on makeup and clothes. I barely wear makeup and don't really like shopping, so these posts almost make me feel like I'm not feminine enough. Still, I find the growth of the blog to be fascinating and inspiring, and I always geek out about personal finance.
Beehive Content at L Bee and the Money Tree - Lauren blogs about personal finance, and has just gone full-time at her freelance business, Beehive Content. I appreciate that Lauren is just starting out - where Kathleeen and Shauna seem so established, Lauren is at a place where I could see myself being, after working at it for a couple years. I'm very interested to see where Lauren ends up in a few years, so I'm going to keep reading her blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Cli-fi and Environmental Education

I went to a lecture last week by Helen Mundler, who is a visiting professor to WMU. She spoke about the novels of Liz Jensen, specifically "The Rapture" and "cli-fi," which is science fiction about climate change.
Mundler started off her lecture by mentioning the way that Jensen tries to write without propoganda. To me, this idea seemed really questionable. In some way, sci-fi is naturally propoganda. One purpose of it is to make the reader question their actions and their views, and if it's effective, it will cause a change. It seems like Jensen does has a bias and agenda in her writing, and that's fine - they can still be good novels. I've been watching "Call the Midwife" recently, and I joke that it's socialist propoganda, because it seems like there's always a baby that would have died if it wasn't for socialized medicine. That doesn't mean that I think it's a bad show, just that I'm aware of the bias inherent in the drama.
The premise of "The Rapture" is that a young woman, Bethany, was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home where she was abused. Bethany killed her mother and was placed in a psychiatric hospital, where she meets an art therapist named Gabrielle. Bethany has an intense inner world that looks like the result of ecological disaster. While in the hospital, Bethany is essentially a prophet of ecological disaster, predicting earthquakes and the like. In a strange connection, one of Jensen's books, published before 2010 featured an oil spill that was erily similar to the BP oil spill.
I was fascinated by the paralells between fundamentalist Christianity and ecological fanaticism that Mundler discussed. The ideologies are different, but the extremist mentalities are the same in the book. I don't know enough about either movement to make a statement on the topic, but I'm curious about the similarities of those movements in real life. Do they share rhetorical techniques? Do people become involved in the movements in the same ways?
From everything that Mundler said about "The Rapture" it sounded like the kind of book that would be banned regularly in the U.S. because of the portrayal of religion. However, when I searched, I couldn't find any articles about it being banned. Books can often be banned quietly, so it very well could have been banned or challenged. I think this book would be great for young people to read - it seems like it would encourage reflection and ask young people to take a critical look at their society.
Applying criticism to young adult fiction is interesting and important, and I wish we discussed it with actual young adults. Personally, I took English classes in high school and was asked to read fiction and respond to it, but I didn't read criticism until college. Reading different critical perspectives on a work was eye-opening for me, and I think I would have benefited from reading them at an earlier age.
Another interesting aspect of this is understanding how young adult fiction fits into a larger picture of environmental education. I consider myself lucky in that I went to summer camp in the woods as a kid, and ended up working at that camp as an adult. That experience broadened my understanding of nature and ecological issues, and made certian issues feel deeply personal*. However, I feel like I'm still lacking in my understanding of ecological issues - for instance, I know that tar sands are bad and happening somewhere in West Michigan, but the specifics are still very fuzzy. I had some environmental education in grade school, but it was sporadic and not terribly engaging. I'm in a sustainability class right now, and I feel like my knowlege of sustainability issues is pretty low. Is this a huge blind spot for everyone else? I'm hoping that I can sieze the oppurtunity to learn more about sustainability, environmental issues, and find ways that those intersect with other things that I'm interested in.

I really enjoy going to lectures - I think they're a good way to broaden your understanding of topics that you don't cover in classes and make the best use of the resources provided to you by your university. It's a more intellectually engaging way to spend an evening than watching Netflix, at the very least.
If you're around Kalamazoo, I encourage you to check out Wagatwe Wanjuki's lecture about Safer Campuses for All: Using Title IX to Provide an Education Free of Sexual Violence in 1920 Sangren Hall at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23.
From Lee Honors College: "Wagatwe Wanjuki is a survivor, activist and writer who uses social media to campaign for reform of college sexual assault policies. She is founding co-organizer of the Know Your IX ED ACT NOW campaign, which educates students regarding their Title IX civil rights."
*Don't get me started about logging.
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