About That Costume (and Trick or Treating)

The only photos I have of my childhood Halloween are the two years I was dressed as a clown. My mother was an excellent seamstress, but she was not frivolous. Purchasing fabric, notions, and taking time out of her day to stitch a costume worn for one evening went against everything Betty Jackson believed in. In her mind, that was a luxury reserved for people who didn’t clip coupons, recycle coffee cans into cookie tins, and transform the back patio into a hair salon once a month. Never mind that the cost difference was probably pennies, my mother preferred the off-the-rack, no-frills costume from TG&Y. And obviously, clowns. Then, on November 1st, she handed down those colorful vinyl pieces to my one girl cousin. I’m almost certain my Aunt Becky sewed whatever my cousin wore on October 31st, so my practically disposable Halloween costumes were probably never worn again.

When I had children, they also donned store-bought costumes every Halloween. In mid-October, after I had spent far too much money decorating my house with garland leaves, scarecrows, hay bales and pumpkins, I trekked to Walmart to buy an off-the-rack delight for the little ones. Over the years, our oldest two children wiggled into their costume around 4 p.m. on Halloween. The annual photos show them as an array of the year’s most popular Disney characters, a fact which only adds to my own lack of creativity. The lowest point in the “dress-up holiday” – as my daughter referred to it – was the year we moved to Phoenix on October 30. Somewhere around noon on Halloween we rushed to a local discount store to purchase the very last of the costumes left on the rack, the rejects: a wrestler and, of course, a clown. By the way, there is almost no way to make a clown costume appear feminine as you can see from the photos above, so we count that year as a complete fail. 

It was two years later that I caved to the pressure of my mommy peers and began attempts at creativity, which basically meant scrounging around for old clothes to pair together, painting their faces, and purchasing a corresponding accessory at the dollar store. The costumes in this era consisted of a pirate, hippies, a farmer, and Minnie Mouse (ears for a buck at the Dollar Tree!). These two older children dressed for Halloween and carried a plastic bucket for candy, reminiscent of my own childhood, but with one notable difference: I walked through my neighborhood as a child on Halloween. For their first several Halloween years, they did not.

As a young mother who had grown up with no siblings, my parenting mentors consisted of other young mothers who were in the church we began attending soon after our son was born. Until his birth, my husband and I had enjoyed lazy Sundays, much like we did in college and graduate school. We had been content to leave the fold of church until we were blessed with a surprise pregnancy and a baby 11 months after our wedding. Soon after his birth we admitted to needing a little support, comfort, advice and a place to yell for help. So we stepped back into familiar territory and settled in. 

One of the trade-offs of our comforting social circle of parents was an abandonment of traditional trick-or-treating on Halloween. Instead, my husband and I dressed our children in their uncreative costumes and loaded them into the minivan to drive to the Fall Festival at church. There, our little Disney characters enjoyed games, candy prizes, and an evening of reuniting with all the friends they saw on Sunday, Wednesday and during weekly playdates. In effect, we gave Halloween a cold shoulder. We all agreed that it was scary for the young ones, and had historical undertones (and overtones) of pagan and satanic rituals. We attributed all kinds of evil to this day, and a trek around the neighborhood with the plastic bucket was like embracing the dark spirits that permeated this non-holiday. We were suspect of the parents who didn’t show up to Fall Festival, and a little concerned about those who took their kids trick-or-treating during the early hours and showed up at the festival midway through. Also, that arrangement was a little like double-dipping. These days, many churches have graduated to something called Trunk-or-Treat, which allows kids to actually walk from car to car and still get the thrill of shouting out something (“trunk or treat!”) in exchange for candy. But still, no tricks allowed.

All those years of turning away from the dark side of Halloween left me missing the neighborly part of it. The people who lived closest to us were people we rarely interacted with, and when we finally returned to the trick-or-treat tradition with our youngest daughter and the older kids helping us escort her, it felt right. We passed by these houses every day and would sometimes wave at our neighbors or engage in quick small talk while walking the dog. But the act of ringing their doorbell with our youngest daughter, allowing her to cry out for candy and be complimented on her princess costume (sadly, we didn’t get any more creative with the dress-up part of it), felt like a return to something I needed from my small-town childhood. Instinctively, the neighbors pulled together to give the little ones the best night of the year. The candy was purchased, the houses were decorated, the porch light was on and the door was answered – sometimes with the adult wearing their own costume. 

And yes, there were scary places along the way. For a while, we lived in a neighborhood where our kids were both frightened and fascinated by the dentist who turned his garage into a haunted house, complete with a speaker for scary sounds that could be heard five houses away. But we talked them through it. We walked beside them and laughed to lighten the frightening moments and high-fived them when we escaped unscathed with chocolate bars and a toothbrush in hand. I like to think this was better preparation for the world ahead, which also turned out to include some scary moments for our kids, complete with ugly laughter and some unexpected events that jumped out from behind closed doors. We’ve tried to make sure they know it’s essential to have people walk beside them, and we’ve celebrated when they emerged from tough places and survived the darkness (chocolate included, always). 

We now live in a very different kind of neighborhood than the one our children grew up in. It’s a more economically and racially diverse part of town and as a naive young mother, I probably would have avoided a neighborhood like this in order to keep my children “safe.” But here is what happens in Owen Park every Halloween: We all buy multiple bags of 250-piece candy, stay home, gather on our front porches even when it’s cold, and wait for our neighbors to walk their children around in their homemade creations. Some of our neighbors have a lot of resource to dress up their kids, and some have almost none. We also don’t mind that people drive their children to our neighborhood from other parts of town that actually aren’t as safe. Tonight, the children are all equal. They get to become whoever they want to be for an evening, and they will be handed candy and hear the gushing compliments of the neighbors for whatever they wear – even the kid dressed in the plastic clown costume. It’s magical, and I’m all in for the frivolous excess of Halloween. In neighborhoods like ours across our city and country, hand in hand with the adults in their lives, in costume for one glorious night and anticipating armloads of candy, there isn’t a better place to be on October 31st. Maybe tonight we can be reminded of generous, neighborly acceptance for the year that is in front of us. We could use it.

Baking Like in 1973

I’m a little edgy the week between Christmas and the New Year, trying hard to “take time off” but also feeling a looming sense that I should enter the upcoming year by sweeping out old messes. So I organize.

Today, it was our bedroom built-ins, which I have not touched since the day we moved in almost two years ago. This is where I stored most of the sentimental books, papers, letters, and photos that weren’t already organized in the plethora of basement bins. My reason for finally getting around to the bedroom shelves had more to do with how cold the house is than a desire to get the shelves organized. The high was 38 degrees and heat rises, so up the stairs I went.  

In the middle of one of the old journals I was thumbing through I found a random recipe card for Carrot Pecan Cake. It was my mother’s handwriting on one of her 3×5 lined index cards, and in the top corner, she had attributed the source of this recipe as Joy Barnes. I have never heard of Joy Barnes. I have also never eaten Carrot Pecan Cake. Mom had a slight addiction to recipe cards. She loved to collect them from people or cut recipes from magazines and copy them by hand, then file them in metal index card boxes that she labeled alphabetically. After she died, I found four of these metal boxes stuffed with recipes – most of them for desserts or dishes she never actually made. I suspect that my mother spent more time writing out the instructions for these recipes instead of actually in the kitchen making them. I get this. So in the spirit of planning things in order to avoid actually doing them, I decided to honor her and make the Carrot Pecan Cake. So much for the organizing. (Side note: holidays are hard when you miss people, so little grief projects are permissible).

It occurred to me after I made the grocery list that because I have no memory of this cake, it was possible that Mom made it once, got the thumbs down from Dad, and filed it away along with any recipe that included green peas, lima beans, blueberries or cherries. My mother was a 1960s/70s housewife. Enough said. I decided to do it anyway. I make plenty of things that my husband doesn’t like, and so just in case she was prohibited from ever making the cake again after a taste test from Dad, I was also honoring how far we women have come since my mother’s baking era.

I’ve never made a carrot cake, which is just fine with my family since most of them don’t like it – including my husband. But, of course, this didn’t stop me. We had two bags of Knight Creek Farms pecans that I’ve been popping like candy, and I wanted to use them in a baking project.

So here’s how it went:

First, when the recipe calls for “grated carrots”, that means that you actually get out your grater and not your carrot peeler. These are two different kitchen tools that produce vastly different results. I was happily distracted listening to the year-end episode of All Songs Considered, and peeling my third carrot when I realized the difference. So I pivoted and began to grate, but because I wasted three carrots by peeling them I was short one cup. So the husband who doesn’t like carrot cake went to the store and bought a bag of shredded carrots. This should have been done in the first place, but assuming there is a next time I’ve already made a note on the recipe card. If my mother had to grate three cups of carrots, I’m adding that to the list of possible reasons I have never eaten this cake. She did eventually get around to baking after all the hand-copying recipes, but I’m picturing her losing patience with that one. 

Also, a tube pan is the same as a bundt pan, oleo is butter, and salad oil is vegetable oil. These are simple but necessary translations to be aware of when reading a recipe written somewhere around the early 1970s. This cake baked 10 minutes quicker than the recipe and the cream cheese icing was strangely thick, but I finished it about an hour before our guest came for dinner. Oh, I should mention that our guest was a boy who our youngest daughter likes very much and it was our first time to meet him. I gave everyone permission to not like this cake and assured them my feelings wouldn’t be hurt. It’s freeing to be able to say that the recipe came from someone who possibly never even made the cake. My daughter gave it the thumbs down (texture issues) and my husband said that it was “actually not that bad.” I know what this means, and if I was my mother in 1973 I wouldn’t be making it again after that comment. But that boy ate every bite of that Carrot Pecan Cake, then told me he wouldn’t choose it if it was on a dessert menu. I asked him to be honest, and he was. I like him. 

Making that silly cake was just another way I’m maneuvering through the holidays – balancing the joy of being with family and new friends with some grief about missing other important people in my life. But darn if I didn’t want to call my mother at the end of this evening just to find out if she ever really did make Carrot Pecan Cake. Doesn’t matter. I made it for her, and I thought it tasted magnificent.

In case you are in the mood to make a cake from the recipe file of Betty Jackson, via Joy Barnes (wherever she may be), here’s the recipe. But please– it’s not 1973, so splurge and buy the shredded carrots. 


CARROT PECAN CAKE

  • 1 1/4 C. salad oil (canola oil)
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 2 C. sifted Flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 C. grated carrots
  • 1 C. chopped pecans

ICING

  • 1 stick oleo (real butter)
  • 1 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 lb. box powdered sugar
  • 1 C. chopped pecans

Combine oil and sugar and mix well. Add dry ingredients alternately with eggs. Mix well after each addition (add eggs one at a time). Add carrots and mix well. Add pecans. Bake in lightly oiled tube pan at 350 degrees for 1 hour, 10 minutes (my baking time was only 1 hour). Cool slightly and turn cake onto plate. Cream together icing ingredients and ice cooled cake.

What Came Across My News Feed During Sewing Class

Yesterday we welcomed 13 new students for the fall session of our Refugee and Immigrant Sewing Enterprise. They came ready to sew, but also were eager to share with us about their lives, meet one another, and learn a skill that will allow them to contribute to their community and their families. They were all smiles and so were we.

During the evening session, in the middle of an explanation about seam gauges, a news alert came across my phone so I walked over to silence and put my phone away. A number caught my eye. 

30,000.

And the word Refugees.

I knew exactly what the news alert was about, but I set my phone aside until class was over. After we said our goodbyes to the ladies with hugs and words of excitement about next week’s lesson, I looked at the details of the news alert. The president had set the number of how many refugees can be resettled in the United States next year. 

30,000.

It’s a cut to an already drastically scaled back program for people who seek to enter our country because they are fleeing violence and persecution. (Last year’s pathetically low cap was 45,000.) And this comes at a time when the numbers of forcibly displaced people around the world have reached a post-World War II record: 68.5 billion. In his announcement about the cap, Secretary of State Pompeo called the reduction a response to a “daunting operational reality”, referring to a backlog of asylum seekers. He overstated the numbers and linked two types of immigrants who are processed differently in order to create a misleading justification for the low cap. But this is only one example of how the administration is controlling the narrative with misleading facts and skewed numbers. Their argument: “We need to prioritize hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived at the U.S. border who are claiming a credible fear of returning home, rather than refugees overseas who have already officially qualified for protection and resettlement in another country.” Which is interesting and up for debate after the administration failed to protect unaccompanied minors at the border, separated families, and sent thousands of people from our border back to places where their lives are in danger. Instead of effectively administering the two separate programs (asylum seekers and refugees), the narrative seems to pit the two programs against one another in order to justify slowly gutting the refugee resettlement program. Just to be clear, this was a goal from this president’s first days in office. The travel ban was imposed a week after he was sworn in, halting the program and limiting the number of refugees that could be resettled from 110,000 to 50,000.

As for the 30,000 number, that’s a cap. Remember the 45,000 number? Only 20, 918 have been admitted for this year and it’s September 18th. So expect a number more like 15,000 for next year. If that.

The reasons, justifications, and arguments for lowering the cap are shrouded in concern for the safety of our own country and a plausible-sounding regard for responsible vetting procedures. Don’t be fooled. The foreshadowing of everything surrounding the crisis at the border and the dismantling of the refugee resettlement program was clearly stated in campaign speeches before this president was elected and in the rhetoric against immigrants and refugees that accompanied his campaign. Current events have little to do with these decisions. 

The irony of this announcement on a day when we were welcoming new women into our Refugee Sewing Enterprise is not lost on me. I’ve been silent on this, deciding that my path of resistance against the questionable policies of this administration will be to do good work with those in the refugee community. I teach a citizenship class each week to 20 refugees and immigrants from all over the world who are eager to call themselves citizens of the United States. It gives me hope and makes me feel closer to the kingdom of God to be surrounded by the beautiful mix of language, culture and religions. The students love this country, are proud to be here, and they work hard to contribute to our local community. I’m deeply distressed that the direction we are moving sends a message to the world that we are closing our borders to keep out those are not us. It is contrary to the heart of a loving God who welcomes everyone. There is no us and them. There is only us. 

So here is my voice, pitched as loud as possible but in the nicest way I know how to say it: If we accept this administration’s narrative of fear, racism and nationalism, we are complicit in what will be viewed as a historic turning away of those who are in serious need of safe refuge.

Tomorrow night in our weekly citizenship class, I’m going to welcome each student who walks through the door. And on Thursday and Friday, I’m going to welcome the sewing students again. I do this each week, but now I’m going to do it with more intentionality. More passion. More determination. And more resistance. If you want to join voices, let’s raise them together on behalf of all of us

And Now, the Rest of the Story

Before we moved into our house last year, we constructed a long list of things we needed to purge and cable television was one of them. It doesn’t take up space, but we also threw in things that took our money without giving us much in return, and cable easily made the list. So now we have an antenna that sits inside one of our front windows and gives us two local stations and about ten stations that make no sense to me. So we don’t watch any of it, but we have it if we need it.

Last night we needed it.

One of our local stations did a feature on the RiSE Sewing Program that Rising Village launched last month. In 135 seconds they told the story, which is actually not possible. We are tempted to believe that the news we get in short spurts is enough, when most of the time it isn’t. I’m grateful that the local news decided to cover our program, so I’ve linked the story at the bottom of the post, but please read this first. I want to tell you the rest of the story before you see the snippet.

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I met Lun at a local ice cream shop in South Tulsa. We spent the lunch hour talking about the new ESL class we were both participating in and listening to each other’s stories. Lun is from Myanmar (formerly Burma). She is a refugee who fled an oppressive regime that continues to persecute people groups based on their religion. Like many refugees, Lun has thrived in the U.S. She has a career, volunteers with people in her community, and contributes to our economy through paying taxes, being a consumer, and helping the local business she works for thrive. She is a U.S. citizen now and is passionate about helping other Burmese refugees in Tulsa assimilate into our culture in healthy ways as they continue to respect and retain their own. I immediately connected with Lun because we are alike – angsty people who share a desire to fix all the things going wrong in the world. As we swapped contact information at the end of the lunch, she looked at my card and asked about Rising Village. As I told her about the seamstress apprentices in Ghana who are learning to sew as a way to provide for their families, she leaned across the table, eyes wide and slapped her palms down on the table. “We need to do that here,” she said. That day, we found our common passion: women in the margins who need a way to emerge from the shadows and contribute to their community.

I don’t live in Ghana and never have, so my work there has consisted of almost daily messages with our staff in the villages across the country and one or two trips a year. I raise funds by writing and speaking about the issues women face there and the success stories we’ve had along the way. I connect with donors here but have little opportunity to really touch the work there. I’ve always considered my distance from Ghana a good thing since I’m not Ghanaian and generally naive and ignorant about the culture. I’m probably capable of doing far more damage than good if I was present with my white Western fingers in all their business, so I’ve been grateful for a Ghanaian staff who understands how to do good work in this African country in the most culturally appropriate way.

When Lun leaned across the table that day, I resisted the urge to respond with, “Yes, let’s do it now.” I have a board of directors to answer to, and a very impatient voice in my head that must be continually tamed and sometimes bridled. So I pondered, researched, talked to some of the women Lun had in mind for sewing classes, consulted with a woman who started a program in North Carolina teaching refugee women to sew, and sat on my hands until Lun had worn me down. “The women are excited and ready to start,” she kept telling me every time we saw each other. After a few times of hearing this, I asked how many women she was talking about. She pulled out a notebook with a list of names and did a quick count, although I knew she already had the number in her head. “Twenty-six and I’ve put some on a waiting list.” She smiled. I nodded.

I went to our board of directors with a request to launch the new program, they voted yes, and we started four weeks later. In one month we were ready to go, which was a small miracle and a big risk.

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The local news reporter I talked to endured my long storytelling about our organization, our mission, the program and the women. I was aware that much of what I said would be cut, and there were things I didn’t have time to mention that are important parts of the story. I knew that after the story aired, I would want to add more. So here’s what didn’t make it into the short news clip (Again, super grateful! Just also aware that local news doesn’t have the air time to go in-depth).

  • We have opportunities to welcome people from around the world who are already here and working hard to assimilate into our culture and contribute to our communities. No one leaves their home and culture casually or thoughtlessly. The privilege of welcoming is, indeed, a privilege. I’m celebrating the opportunity to open our hearts and hands to these women and make something beautiful with them.
  • Make Welcome in Charlotte, N.C., is the organization that was an inspriation for our model.  One of their first students had recently moved to Tulsa and was teaching a few women in her apartment. I found this out by creeping their Facebook page, so I immediately called Make Welcome’s director, Beth, and she put me in touch with her former student. Ciin is now teaching in our program and has brought her students along. We’d be a little lost without her. She speaks the language and is a graduate of a similar program! It’s all these surprising moments along the way that have given us affirmation and the motivation to begin.

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  • When women are shut out of opportunities to create, earn and help provide for their families, I consider that an injustice. We have worked hard in Ghana to identify women who are the most in need of one helping hand to lift while they do the rest of the lifting. They are successful at this. They want to work. Again, I consider it a privilege to walk alongside women as we all work hard to contribute to our communities.
  • The women have goals. Some of them want to learn to sew so they can mend or make clothing for their families. Others want to earn extra income by making products that could be sold on our online store or at pop-up shops and craft fairs. Other women would like to work for a local business that needs stitchers.
  • The women in our communities who are living in invisible places because they don’t speak the language or feel incapable of assimilating often have amazing skills and talents that they are unable to use. When we unleash their creativity and capability, everyone benefits. I believe we have nothing to fear from people who come to our country to succeed. They make it a better place for all of us. A scarcity mentality is small, narrow, and dangerous. I want us to create wide spaces for everyone to succeed.

So there is the rest of the story, at least as it’s unfolding right now. I have hopes and dreams for the RiSE program – that we can reach more women with opportunities to make something beautiful for themselves, their families, and their country. I’m grateful to South Tulsa Baptist Church for providing us the physical space, volunteers for providing the instruction, and donors for providing the resources as we continue to watch our friends from around the world rise.

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If you want more information or to join our RiSE team, email lisa@risingvillage.org

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Generous People and Amazon Shopping

A while back, before I lived in the non-profit world and realized how truly generous most people are, I decided to ditch the corporate empire of Amazon because it was putting all the independent bookstores out of business. I didn’t need it. I gave this resolution my best effort, but just like trying to buy your file folders at Target, it doesn’t appeal to those of us who are penny-pinching. So I’m full in on Amazon – the prime account, non-profit donation button, the wish list. Let’s talk about that wish list. And let’s talk about generous people.

This past week, I restocked the Rising Village Amazon list with dressmaking scissors, needles, pin cushions, thimbles and other sewing supplies. This involved some research and consultation with people more knowledgeable about these things because, unfortunately, I don’t sew. I grew up with a mother who was a seamstress, so I was immediately moved by the idea of making this list. And I hoped others would be moved by shopping from this list because beginning the first week of June, Rising Village will start a local program called RiSE (Refugee Sewing Enterprise). We have 25 women who want to learn to sew or use their sewing skills to earn income. Our organization has embraced the African proverb that says, When you pray, move your feet. Sometimes, it’s good to pray for needs to be met, but most of the time it’s best to ask yourself if you’re the one who’s supposed to meet that need and then get up off your knees and go meet it. You can pray, but you can also do. So we’re doing. You can learn a little more about the program here, or read our latest newsletter about it here.

As it turns out, there were quite a few people who moved their feet and shopped our list.

 

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And because of that, we’re almost completely stocked with what we need for our start-up. There are still a few items remaining, so if you need to head on over there and finish this post after you’ve shopped, please do!

For the past three days, boxes and big yellow envelopes have appeared on my front porch. If you’ve never shopped an Amazon wishlist, then you might not realize that you have the opportunity to let the recipient know who the gift is from (if you shop the wishlist, please do this). Inside the package is a little slip of paper with your name and a short message, and today I was completely overwhelmed by the names and the messages. 

 

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There is something about having a tribe of people behind you when you do this kind of project. Remember when you were a kid and riding your bike up a hill, and that person who gave you a much-needed push every eight or nine pedals just when you needed it most?  Those pushes were enough to get you a little further up, and reminded you that someone was back there to save you when the wheel started veering around and your legs got shaky. Yeah, it’s like that. So many times, I’ve wondered how we were going to pull off a wild-idea project. And then along comes our bike-pushing, big-hearted tribe to get us a little further up the hill.

 

 

 

 

 

It makes me love Amazon even though I never planned to, but there is no easier way to communicate what we need and then offer people an easy way to shop for it. So I’m a fan on behalf of the women who will enter this sewing program in June. I’m a fan on behalf of their children who will see their mothers learning a skill that helps provide family income and assimilate even further into our culture. I’m a fan because sometimes it’s okay to use big corporate entities on behalf of those who are marginalized and need resources to help them move out of those margins.

If you’re reading this and aren’t a part of what we’re doing yet, we’re looking for volunteers, donations, prayers, communicators, bridge-builders, and networkers. A little something for everyone. Are you in? Want to move your feet? Email me and let’s make something beautiful! lisa@risingvillage.org

 

RiSE

Do the Right Thing: Some Thoughts on the Walkout

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Our middle child, Erin, started kindergarten at a large public school in a suburb of Tulsa. On her first day at Jenks East Elementary,  I packed her Disney character lunchbox, slipped her plastic pink and purple backpack through her two little outstretched arms, and told her that this was the best day of her life so far. I was only repeating what she had been telling everyone for months, that her first day of kindergarten – real school as she called it – was going to be the “best day of my life.”

She started school in 1996, when many schools in Oklahoma still had half-day kindergarten. At pick-up time, she trotted down the hallway with the other morning kindergartners, carrying her bright backpack, and her little silver hair clip barely hanging on a few wisps of bangs. She stopped when she saw me and stomped one little foot in frustration.

“Is that it?” she asked.

While many children were running to their parents after the three-hour separation, my daughter was feeling cheated out of the best day of her life.

Thankfully, she adjusted to the short days. For the next thirteen years, the daughter who had played school with stuffed animals and cried when her older brother trudged off to kindergarten the year before her, thrived in the public schools she attended. We handed over each of our three children to that public school system, never for once believing that there was a better alternative. Kyle and I are both products of public school. It was in those buildings that, as children, we learned to live in community. We were in classrooms, lunchrooms and on the playground with students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, income levels and family structures. Our schools were a reflection of the larger communities we lived in, never completely homogeneous, but bonded together through shared social structures. Our parents, like us, believed in the kind of democracy that puts value on quality education for all children, not just the elite who have the means to afford it. We pay our taxes so that, in theory, everyone can enjoy a quality of life that includes health services, ease of transportation, city parks, and most importantly, education for our children, your children, and their children.

It’s flawed, however. As often happens, power and politics entered the room, and over the years, money that should have been appropriated for the good of our children is redirected to benefit big business and tax cuts for those in upper-income levels. Not surprisingly, what was designed to jump-start the economy, has served only to constrain the state’s revenues.

This siphoning of money away from the services that are necessary to build healthy communities results in a very undemocratic distribution of funds, so that children who rely on public education are crammed into overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers and decades-old textbooks.

Many people weren’t paying attention over the past ten years. And our underpaid teachers (heroes) walked out of classrooms and into our state capitol to demand that our legislators fix the crisis and fund education at a dignified level. On the first day of the walkout, our youngest daughter took her handmade sign to Oklahoma City and joined her teachers, administrators, and other parents to demonstrate the frustration over these realities: Oklahoma now spends $1 billion less on K-12 education than it did a decade ago; one in five school districts has opted for a four-day school week; the base minimum salary for educators hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade; and emergency credentials are being awarded at a record pace to help fill teacher vacancies. Funding for Arts programs have been slashed and many of those programs are gone. Some schools are consolidating their sports programs with other schools to save money. Even the best public schools in our state rely on teachers to supplement classroom supplies by using their personal funds.

Six years ago, I began traveling to Ghana, and during my first two years there I observed classrooms where children were sitting three at a desk and without textbooks for any subject, while teachers took 10 minutes at the start of each class to write the entire lesson on the board with stubs of chalk. A mandated part of the curriculum was Information Technology, but most children had never seen a computer and teachers were forced to teach that course using the chalkboard. They started the unit by drawing pictures of computer screens, floppy disks(!) and a mouse. It was no wonder they were constantly begging for chalk.

When I told them the schools in our state were also underfunded, they were incredulous.

“How could that be?” one of the teachers asked. It was too complicated to explain, so I just told her we were having a difficult time prioritizing.

“Children are too important. They must come first,” she replied. The irony of her statement wasn’t lost on me, but I think those words sum it up whether you live in Ghana or Oklahoma. Educated kids grow up to be educated adults who help make our communities, cities, states, and country a better place to live. But it costs money. It requires prioritizing.

Each day that for the past two weeks, the images of our dedicated teachers rallying, demonstrating, speaking out and seeking out conversations with legislators remind me that our public schools are worth fighting for. Since we talk so much about constitutional rights, this is a good place to insert Article 13 of Oklahoma’s Constitution, which says,

The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.

My teacher friends in our district are going back to the classroom on Monday and students will join them on Tuesday. There is a sad, collective sigh of despair in that statement. We all feel a sense of defeat at the reality of what really did get funded.  It’s not enough. Teachers had initially demanded the repeal of a capital-gains tax exemption, which applies to wealthy individuals. Instead, many of the new taxes will be paid by middle-income to low-income Oklahomans. The Legislature didn’t do the right thing.

But here’s the rest of the story: On the first day of filing for candidacy in statewide elections, 458 people -most of the teachers and other pro-education individuals filed and will be running against incumbents in November. Those numbers already surpass the total House and Senate candidates in both 2014 and 2016. Our daughter’s history teacher, Mr. Waldron, and our neighbor, Rusty, are among those who filed. Between now and November, I’m going to campaign and then take my passion to the ballot box, because that’s how democracy works best – or at least it should. I still believe in it. I still believe in public school education for all. And I still believe that if we do the right thing, we can give all children the opportunity to walk into school with the excitement of a six-year-old who says it will be “the best day ever.”

 

Lenten Deep Dive

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My proclamation a few weeks before Lent began –  that I was giving up grumbling for the six weeks – was probably a relief for the people who live in my house. While everyone else was depriving themselves of chocolate and soda, I was going to simply stop whining and groaning about every little winter thing that had been crawling under my skin for the past three months. Cold weather is becoming my cranky catalyst, and it had gotten so bad that even I was tired of listening to myself.

Having settled the question of what would be given up, I was ready for Ash Wednesday. Then, the Sunday before Lent began I ended up at a venue in Oklahoma City with a group of passionate advocates who had gathered to talk about the immigration and refugee crisis. I was tagging along with my husband who was interested in how his law degree could be put to good use on behalf of this particular population. I was happy to take a short road trip on a Sunday afternoon. It would be fun. We’d drive and talk, and after it was over we would find a quaint coffeeshop.

For six years, I’ve had my head, heart, and sometimes my body in Ghana, working to help provide income sustainability and education to marginalized women and children in tiny rural villages spread across the West African country. The issue of immigrants entering and living in our country, and the global refugee crisis was something I had only seen out of the corner of my eye. I began to pay closer attention to it during the presidential campaign as the rhetoric increased, culminating in the president’s travel ban in February, 2017. But still, I was too distracted to realize that something was building.

At the event, we heard from refugees, DACA recipients, advocates, immigrants, and those who were helping to resettle and serve people newly arrived to our country. I was given some facts and statistics, along with a few harsh realities. I got angry and sad. And then, when I realized how little I knew about an issue that was swirling in front of me, I got  motivated.

Also, I won a book. This is significant because this never happens to me. I don’t win stuff. Ever. I’m the one who drops her name into the bucket and it’s never drawn and I’m never surprised. This time my name was called, and I was handed a tote bag with the words “Daring Hope” and a book with the title, Seeking RefugeI took it as a sign. If I had been lucky enough to win this book, then I had better read it. I flew through it in less than 48 hours, but I needed to know more. I decided that for the Lenten season, I should do more than just give up grumbling.  Instead, the six weeks would be spent doing a deep dive into the immigration and refugee crisis.

I immediately began building my own syllabus. It would include books, articles, Google alerts, documentaries, TED talks, historical documents and podcasts. In addition, I would observe ESL classes, meet immigrants and refugees, and listen to their stories. I signed up to receive the UNHCR Morning Brief by email, and researched the countries where conflict was driving people from their homes and into camps along with other forms of displacement. I discovered the Pew Research Center and spent time studying charts, graphs, numbers and statistics.

The Catholic activist Dorothy Day said, “our greatest danger is not our sins, but our indifference,” to which I humbly offer the possibility that our indifference is the sin. This Lenten season I discovered that moving from indifference to informed can be a spiritual experience, and for me it is the prerequisite for any calling that involves doing the work of justice. So is prayer, lament, and meditating, which became more necessary as I read the stories of what people are enduring in conflict areas and refugee camps, and what they are facing daily in our own communities.

My work in Ghana continues as Rising Village provides resources so people can rise up and out of the margins. But I am also paying attention to what is happening in front of us – in our own community. My Lenten deep dive has moved me to join the courageous voices here, and then, in the spirit of my favorite African proverb, look for ways to “move my feet”.

In case you are curious about the Lenten Deep Dive syllabus I followed, I’m posting it below, acknowledging that it is not a definitive list of resources, or even the best. It did allow me to hear from a wide range of voices and see the issue from varying angles. All are trusted sources and I found them to be incredibly informative. I’m continuing to learn, so if you have resources to suggest, feel free to post them in the comments. 

Books:

Seeking Refuge by Matthew Soerens

The Middle of Everywhere by Mary Pipher

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence

Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era by Jorge Ramos

Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Documentaries/Forums:

The Human Flow (Amazon Prime)

Dadaab: The Documentary (YouTube)

From the Frontlines: The Global Refugee Crisis (YouTube)

Historical and Reference Resources:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Refugee Act of 1980

Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

Pew Research Center  (search immigration/refugee)

The Refugee Brief from UNHCR (weekday morning news brief)

Ted Talks:

David Miliband: “The Refugee Crisis is a Test of Our Character

Alexander Betts: “Our Refugee System is Failing. Here’s How We Can Fix It.”

Luma Mufleh: Don’t Feel Sorry for Refugees, Believe in Them.”

Websites:

worldrelief.org (World Relief)

www.rescue.org (International Rescue Committee)

wewelcomerefugees.com  (We Welcome Refugees)