An introspective, respectful and sold-out City Club audience gathered to consider the long march to equality for transgender people in Northeast Ohio. Activist Stacey Parsons spoke directly to the elected officials in the room: “Without your support, nothing can change. Your being here says so much to the community.”
Darius Stubbs, a Cleveland teaching artist, added that “public policy helps change the city and if changes are made there, then people have to evaluate where they stand personally.”
The session opened with Dr. Kevin Ng, who directs the MetroHealth’s PRIDE Clinic, where he estimates two-thirds of his patients are transgender. He began with a quick lesson: Biological sex is the sex assigned at birth, whereas gender identity is how people see themselves when they close their eyes. On the flip side, gender expression is how people choose to present themselves the outside world. A person is transgender when their biological sex and gender identity don’t coincide.
Parsons was congenial and straightforward: “Ask questions if you have a question. Kids learn from how you treat us.”
Whatever the stogy Midwest stereotype, Cleveland is a leader in anti-discrimination measures for the LGBT community, said Susan J. Becker, a Cleveland State University law professor. But there is still room for growth. She mentioned the proposed city ordinance that would require public spaces such bathrooms and locker rooms to be available on a nondiscriminatory basis. This law would allow transgender individuals to use the restroom they feel most comfortable in.
Actually passing such measures requires much community education, Ng said, noting that it could begin in hospitals and clinics. Most medical schools offer only five hours of instruction regarding LGBT care, he said. “And the ‘T’ is usually the smallest part.”
Patients who are transgender often meet hostility instead of “care.” Parsons said, “Physicians have told me they don’t want to deal with me and will treat me like a man” as the room went silent. “If that’s not the most dehumanizing thing…” And Stubbs said his doctor sent a letter suggesting he seek a different care provider. Becker said there is little legal recourse: in only one third of states is discrimination against transgender people illegal.
Moderator Connie Schultz asked how journalists can produce more accurate reporting of transgender issues.
“It’s horrifying when [journalists] misgender someone,” Parsons responded. “They’ll write, ‘an oddly dressed man, wearing women’s clothing.’ That’s obviously a transgender individual. It’s a blatant disrespect to the individual. All it does is bring negative attention to the transgender community.”
When Stubbs was asked if he faced any particular challenges transitioning as a person of color, his response was sobering.
“I’ve become very aware of how differently black men are treated in society,” he said carefully. “I’m very aware of the palpable fear that comes from people, when they are trying to engage a man of color. There’s an immediate feeling of ‘you are a predator’ that comes off when you talk to people. It’s something I’m still having to deal with.”
by Rachel Burstein
Our experience of a book can be changed—and enriched—when we read it alongside people who are different from us. That’s the verdict from participants at a recent Books@Work program in Cleveland. The group read The Warmth of Other Suns from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her meticulously researched and beautifully told history of the Great Migration won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Books@Work is a non-profit organization that brings professor-led literature seminars into the workplace and to a variety of community settings.
Few participants in a recent seminar were prepared for how profoundly reading and discussing Isabel Wilkerson’s book would hit them. Many recognized elements of their own family history in the book, causing them to reevaluate the role of individuals—especially people of color—in making history. Led by Michelle Rankins, an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University, readers explored thinking of themselves as part of a continuing narrative, and potential agents of change. As Professor Rankins put it, “There are so many universal themes in the text.”
One woman said that reading The Warmth of Other Suns encouraged her to investigate her own family history, tracing her grandmother’s journey from the Deep South to Cleveland during the Great Migration. She said she wished “that I had talked to her more about her upbringing and what made her come from the South up to the North. You know people left and came up, but you didn’t realize the reasons why and how they came up here with no idea what they were getting themselves into. That brought me to thinking I should maybe go find some more of my relatives we don’t really communicate with and just see if we can get more family history going.”
In many ways, Wilkerson’s book is a guide to Cleveland and other rust-belt cities whose history and culture were shaped by the Great Migration. And for many African-Americans in Cleveland—one or two generations removed from Southern roots—Wilkerson’s powerful narratives echo their own stories. One man said he was unaware of the profound historical and present-day discrimination that African-Americans encountered in the North, adding that reading the book with colleagues spurred him to inquire more about the racism that others in the group had faced. “I said [to my colleague], ‘I hate to admit it, but I had never heard of Jim Crow until I read this book,’ the participant said. “You know, and she looked at me and says, ‘Did you grow up under a rock?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I did.’ So we got into a discussion.”
These conversations are critical, in Cleveland and the larger world.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a powerful tool, asking readers to reflect on their own place among its narrative. These discussions can be difficult and complex: calling forth acknowledgment of complicity and privilege for some readers, and admission of failure to engage the past on the part of others. But there is also a chance—through literature—for the ordinary human being to shape and influence the story, and the world in which we find ourselves today.
That is why professors in the Books@Work seminar play such an important role in directing the conversation and fostering honest dialogue. It is the alchemy of the professor, the text and—crucially—the group members themselves, that allowed participants in the Books@Work seminar to take away so much from The Warmth of Other Suns.
Books@Work offers programs in a variety of sectors, states, and community settings. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Books@work through the website.
Rachel Burstein, PhD is a labor historian and Academic Director at Books@Work. Follow her on Twitter.
In a popular U.S. high school history textbook, The Americans, there is only one sentence—in passive voice—on housing discrimination among more than 1200 pages of text: “African-Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.”
So noted researcher Richard Rothstein, who cited this fact as an exemplar of American “collective amnesia” when it comes to how we discuss segregation. Such disingenuousness, he told the City Club of Cleveland, keeps our nation from righting past wrongs.
With minimal use of his notes, Rothstein drew a precise and powerful link between the current achievement gap among the races and our country’s legacy of inequality. “We do not have de facto segregation in this country,” he maintained, to murmurs of agreement in the audience. “We have explicit racial apartheid and we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”
Rothstein devoted the bulk of his City Club presentation to revisiting this history, beginning with the public policies in the 1940s that restricted black families to crowded public housing units and prevented black veterans from taking full advantage of the housing benefits in the G.I. Bill after World War II. Those national policy decisions stripped black families of the opportunity to generate the generational wealth enjoyed by whites.
Levittown, a Long Island, N.Y. suburb that boomed in the 1940s, makes a poignant example. Rothstein estimates that white homeowners who purchased their residences in the 1950s saw a 200% increase in equity in the following decades, which often sent children to college or enhanced businesses.
Simply outlawing discrimination doesn’t remedy years of injury, Rothstein argued, particularly as the effect of housing inequity still plagues American schools today: “We have a constitutional obligation to undo this history. It was not an accident. It was created under public policy. We have an obligation to reverse it.”
Rothstein also recommends reforms in the labor market, including the end of unpredictable scheduling for many low-wage occupations, overwhelmingly held by parents of color. Fifty percent of all black hourly workers receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance, he noted, making it difficult to find consistent childcare or set mealtimes. “Giving parents stable work lives would do more to close the achievement gap than any education reform we can talk about.”
Questions from the audience were measured, including two from local high school students. Anthony Price from Shaw High School asked if Rothstein had suggestions for young people in eradicating inequality, in light of a recent City Club forum that placed youth at the center of the conversation, which he moderated. Rothstein circled back to his textbook example. “Educate yourselves about this history and insist that it become part of the curriculum,” he said to applause.
Will Congress or the Supreme Court address modern segregation? Rothstein insisted on the long view: “It’s going to take a long process of reeducating the American public. The Supreme Court is not going to go where we fear to go.”
“We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Stevenson told the audience at his TED Talk. “Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.”
That 24-minute address, which received two standing ovations and more than two million views, represents the crux of Stevenson’s life work. As founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, the attorney and New York University law professor devotes his life to challenging a culture of mass incarceration and advocating for the rights of juveniles in the justice system. In 2012, he won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court establishing the unconstitutionality of sentencing minors to life in prison for crimes that aren’t homicide.
Stevenson, 55, will present his latest research and insights in a free, community forum called “Let’s Talk About Injustice”March 19 at Cleveland State University. The Cleveland chapter of Facing History and Ourselves is hosting; the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is a community partner.
In “Just Mercy,” a memoir published last October, Stephenson focuses on his professional life battling judges and prosecutors on behalf of railroaded defendants, often poor people of color. He builds the book around the case of Walter McMillian, an Alabama man housed on death row for the murder of a young white woman even before the trial—despite mounds of evidence of innocence. Shortly after winning McMillian’s appeal in 1995, Stevenson won a MacArthur “genius” grant. He and the staff at EJI used the MacArthur money at EJI to build legal challenges that have rescued more than 100 defendants from death row.
Like Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” Stevenson is a systemic thinker. “I don’t believe that the opposite of poverty is wealth,” he told Jon Stewart on the Daily Show during his October appearance. “I believe that in America, the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Tickets to the March 19 event are free but registration is required..
People of color make up close to 40 percent of the current U.S. population, so what would you do about the desert in children’s literature where fewer than one in ten books feature multi-cultural characters or themes? That question framed the American Library Association’s “Day of Diversity” last month as participants dug into a problem whose contours have barely changed in half a century.
Organizers challenged librarians, publishers, writers, editors, booksellers and educators at the Chicago meeting to come up with ways to increase diversity on the typical American child’s bookshelf. Children’s author Elizabeth Bluemle plucked seven audience suggestions for her Publishers Weekly blog, each capable of yielding immediate, tangible results:
1) Adopt a classroom.
2) Buy a book by an author of color featuring a main protagonist of color.
August Wilson, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award in 2005, used to begin writing his plays on napkins to elude the fear of the blank page.
And the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King—also an Anisfield-Wolf recipient—was so unsure of himself in front of a group that he received a C+ in public speaking at seminary, only to drift down to a C in the second semester. When art historian Sarah Lewis saw that transcript, it served as a revelation.
“When I saw this at Sotheby’s, I knew I needed to write this book,” Lewis told Seth Meyers last year. “Because if we are not telling the full arc of people’s lives and stories, then we deprive ourselves of the roadmaps we need.”
Her book is “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery.” Published in 2014, it marked Lewis as a promising public intellectual, profiled in Vogue Magazine under the headline “Brainiac Rising.”
Lewis, 35, grew up in Manhattan and took degrees at Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities. She made her first visit to Cleveland as a Town Hall speaker for Case Western Reserve University. “This is the first time I’ve been asked to speak on innovation in the context of diversity,” she said, a smile ever-present as she wove parts of her Ted Talk (1.3 million views) into this new terrain.
Lewis started in Cleveland with the story of Charles Black, who at age 16 had his first encounter with genius, accidentally hearing Louis Armstrong play his trumpet in 1931 at an Austin, Texas hotel. The boy was thunderstruck that this genius “was housed in the body of a man whom Black’s childhood world had denigrated.” The force of this incongruity set young Charles on a path that led to the law, and to his joining the team that successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.
Lewis, as someone who thinks deeply about art, is fascinated with the connection between social justice and vision. She points out in “The Rise” that a very-detailed schematic of a slave ship, circulated in London in 1789, lent a crucial blow to slave trade under the British flag.
Her next book, due in 2016 from Harvard University Press, will focus on social justice and Frederick Douglass. He makes several appearances in “The Rise.” Intriguingly, the great abolitionist characterized injustice as a failure of the imagination.
Lewis said just two sentences she wrote in “The Rise” attracted the most scrutiny from journalists. These lines suggested that she had experienced some power in being underestimated.
“It can be seen as more risky to be a black woman writing about this,” Lewis said, picking her words carefully. “As someone who attends to African American people’s stories, I do know what improbable foundations are all about.”
The second installment in March, Rep. John Lewis’ acclaimed graphic memoir trilogy on the civil rights movement, picks up where the first volume left off, but this book is more handbook than history lesson.
“I see some of the same manners, some of the same thinking, on the part of young people today that I witnessed as a student,” the Georgia Congressman, 74, told the New York Times. “The only thing that is so different is that I don’t think many of the young people have a deep understanding of the way of nonviolent direct action.”
March: Book Two, released in January, offers a robust crash course. This book centers on a young Lewis and his increasing responsibility within the movement from 1960 to 1963. The graphic memoir opens on young protesters staging a sit-in at a Nashville lunch counter. The peaceful protest soon turned ugly as the restaurant owner deployed a fumigating device to drive away the demonstrators. Lewis, by then seasoned, was still in disbelief: “Were we not human to him?”
Those sit-ins led to the Freedom Rides of 1961. In his letter to organizer Fred Shuttlesworth, Lewis was resolute in his desire to participate: “This is the most important decision in my life — to decide to give up all if necessary for the freedom ride, that justice and freedom might come to the deep south.”
The harrowing bus rides — orchestrated to test the new anti-segregation bus laws made possible by the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia — unleashed angry mobs that bloodied and battered many of the riders. This led to conflict within the movement, with divisions growing between members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (Lewis would later become chairman.)
The book culminates with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where a 23-year-old Lewis spoke sixth. A sense of relief settles in for the reader, yet it doesn’t last long. The final pages are a sledgehammer to the gut. It is clear: there is much more work to do.
Interwoven with this narrative is the historic 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, shown through Lewis’ eyes. The juxtaposition is stirring but somber.
Lewis’ goal is not simply to explain the methods of the movement, but also the soul. Book Two’s greatest strength is its focus on sacrifice — the graphic memoir centers on the physical, emotional and financial price paid by those at the forefront of the movement. Lewis praises his comrades repeatedly for their intellect and fortitude, allowing them to shine alongside King. (He is particularly fond of A. Phillip Randolph, noting, “If he had been born at another time, he could’ve been president.”)
Lewis’ senior aide Andrew Aydin is a co-writer, as he was for the first book. Both are illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Nate Powell, who does exceptionally detailed work here. Almost two years ago, March: Book One became required reading for first-year students at several major universities. Moreover, schools in more than 40 states are teaching March at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. USA Today and The Washington Post named it one of the top books of 2013.
At the debut of March, Lewis said, “I hope that this book will inspire another generation of people to get in the way, find a way to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”