Civil Rights

The silence of friends

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

On a recent evening, I stood in the middle of the basketball court behind the McDonald’s at 390 W. Market St. The rectangular court has two hoops on each of the long sides and one at each of the shorter sides.

At 9:30 p.m. bright lighting floods the court in an otherwise dark parking lot, making it difficult to see much outside of the court, which is entirely enclosed by a high fence, 10’ in some sections, 12’ in others.

The only usable entrance into and out of that rectangular cage is in the northwest corner. The people playing basketball in that court on the night of June 2 were shot at with rapid-fire water pellet guns like fish in a barrel. In order to escape their assailants, they first had to move toward them.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who died in 2015, was an ardent opponent of the death penalty. He once wrote, “I tremble at the thought of how I might react to a killer who took the life of someone in my own family. I know that I might not be able to suppress my anger or put down a desire for revenge.”

There is a particularly painful grief that comes with burying one’s own child. It’s not the natural order of life. But it does happen. Untimely deaths due to disease, auto accidents, drug overdoses, suicides, drownings—at my age I’ve known them all.

And, of course, there’s violent death. In 2017, a friend whom I first met in the fifth grade was killed by her husband of 30 years. I still easily cry when thinking what her family lost with one gunshot.

“This society should strive for something better than what it feels at its weakest moments,” was Cuomo’s response to what he knew would be his own desire for revenge.

From the beginning, the language surrounding the events at that basketball court on June 2 has been loaded. The police said race wasn’t involved and then proceeded to publicly judge the three Black suspects they eventually arrested.

The New York Post reported that “[The three] allegedly ‘punched’ and ‘assaulted’ each of the four victims.” How is it that the four who started the altercation are the victims? Did they shoot at the unsuspecting three and then just stand there? Of course not. They allegedly recorded it for a TikTok challenge and, rather than fleeing, fought with those they’d assaulted.

When the Firestone students (who, along with Ethan Liming, broke multiple laws that night during their water pellet shooting spree) called 911, they said nothing of Liming being beaten to death. But they used that term in their later affidavits, and it has stuck.

Given the factual evidence that’s been presented, what occurred that night was a deadly fight among seven young men. Liming’s autopsy results do not comport with being repeatedly kicked as his companions later claimed. Yet the media persists in misleadingly calling it a “beating death.”

A grand jury recently lowered the charges for brothers Shawn and Tyler Stafford and their cousin Donovan Jones, all of whom have been held in the county jail since June 11. The new charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault are more appropriate than the original murder charges.

The county prosecutor’s office stated it has more information it has not yet made public. For now only one side of the story, and little else, has been readily available, which is why I reached out to the families of the three in jail. I’ve also spoken with neighborhood residents who witnessed various portions of the night’s events.

Among other things, I was told that Shawn Stafford, who is 5’5” and 135 pounds, was punched and knocked to the ground by Liming, who was 6’1” and 165 pounds, as the two fought one another. The grand jury findings seem to support this account for Shawn received the most serious indictment—two charges of involuntary manslaughter.

The three basketball players’ accounts of the events should be given the same weight as those of the Firestone students, but few have been interested in finding out that information.

I’ve received many emails telling me I am brave to have written my last two columns. I don’t consider examining the prejudgment of the police and the lopsided reporting by the media as inherently brave, so the encouragement begs the question: What there is to fear?

We live in a society with a criminal justice system that is not uniform, but instead metes out different treatment based on ethnicity and wealth. And pointing out this wide-open secret, like the elephant in the room that it is, riles up the enemies of equal rights.

Yes, I’ve also received plenty of emails that are slurries of racism and misogyny.

More concerning are people who don’t see their own bigotry when they refer to the Stafford brothers as “thugs.” Or when they tell me I’ve vilified the Firestone four by pointing out that they broke laws, initiated the night’s events and willingly engaged in a fight when their final victims (they’d shot at others that evening) refused to be bullied.

The letters that concern me most, however, are by White people who tell me my last two columns put to words what they’ve also thought, but can’t tell most of the people they know.

The late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis encouraged folks to “get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” There remains much work to be done, much necessary trouble to cause, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, to make ours a nation that treats all citizens equally. Silence in the face of unequal justice is complicity.


On Thursday, August 4, Summit County Judge Tammy O’Brien, a Republican, reduced Donovon Jones’s bail to zero (he was required to sign a letter stating he’d return for trial), Tyler Stafford’s bail to $5,000 (of which he needed to pay $500 to be released), and Shawn Stafford’s to $25,000 (of which he needed to pay $2,500 to be released).

The false narrative on the fight created by Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett and promoted by Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan never added up under the slightest inspection. But area journalists did not ask the obvious questions and simply reported the false narrative as though it was fact.

Without giving it a second thought, far too many found it acceptable to sacrifice the lives of three Black men as payment for the life of a White man who attacked the three without provocation and from whom they defended themselves.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Banning books an exercise in fear and folly

In 1994, I purchased a copy of “The Wild Party” after hearing an interview with Art Spiegelman about his illustrated version of the Gatsby-esque poem by Joseph Moncure March. 

It’s a dark little book, written a year before the Great Depression, in which a gin-soaked party spins out, well, wildly and ends very badly for most of the attendees.  

Last fall in a piece in the New York Times Magazine, Mark Harris wondered if March knew the world was on the cusp of change when he wrote his poem, considering “there are few things more glamorous than the belief that we are living through the end of an era — and there are even fewer times in recent history when we haven’t believed it.”   

Certainly COVID has made everyone feel like we are living at the end of something, which may be contributing to the current increase in book banning. If the school board in Tennessee that recently nixed Spiegelman’s anti-Nazi graphic novel “Maus” ever saw “The Wild Party,” it might try eradicating the author’s entire canon. 

In his recent article, “My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life,” author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote: 

“Those who seek to ban books are wrong no matter how dangerous books can be. Books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question.” 

Like Nguyen, I own some well-written books, published in prior decades, that contain representations of people we recognize today as inappropriate, if not downright racist. These include several of Dr. Seuss’s books as well as the entire collection of Tintin comic books, all of which my children loved reading. 

Yes, there are portrayals of people in those books that are completely unacceptable —my children know this because we’ve discussed it. As a result, I trust their intelligence and compassion to recognize negative stereotypes anywhere and question why they are allowed. 

I’ve never understood why some parents, in something of a cyclical manner, want to ban books. New York Times parenting columnist Jessica Grose believes it’s about the illusion of parental control, though “delusion”  may be more appropriate. 

A 2019 survey reported that “more than half of American children owned a smartphone by the age of 11.” On that little screen, children can see many things they should not. Tell me you have parental controls on your child’s smartphone or, better yet, refuse to give them one? Great, but what about their friends?  

There is no shortage of books on how to talk to kids about pornography, and sex in general so children won’t turn to online porn as a form of sex education. And for good reason. In 2008, when smartphones were still novel, 90% of boys and 66% of girls had viewed online pornography before they were 18.  

Before the internet existed, children clandestinely read and shared books low on literary value and high on prurience. I was delighted that Grose, who’s easily 15 years my junior, revealed passing around “Flowers in the Attic” with her friends as a child. 

V.C. Andrews’ “classic” was equally popular when I was a girl. An actively evil grandmother locks her grandchildren in the attic while the passively evil mother seeks a new husband after the death of the children’s father, indicating that children are a deal breaker in snagging a man (so much misogyny to unpack there, whew). The story then devolves into a penny arcade of various horrors, including incest. 

The books being banned today, however, are not pulpy paperbacks. Many are literary classics dealing with difficult subjects, such as the Holocaust and slavery. Should works on violent, dehumanizing events in history be sanitized? 

I’d counter that teens, who live in the real world in which atrocities are reported daily, safely learn to deal with the complexity of life when they read about bad things happening to good people in books. 

Enslaving another human being has no upside for the enslaved and there were no “good masters” in the United States or elsewhere. When Toni Morrison wrote visceral accounts of the abuses committed by enslavers in her book “Beloved,” she drove home why parents would go to extremes to prevent their children from being enslaved.  

Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” in which Nazis are cats and Jews mice, is not a work of fiction. It’s a postmodern rendering of Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.  

While some books are banned for violent content, others are banned for telling the stories of people who are not white, or not heterosexual, or not Christian. 

Nonwhite, nonheterosexual and non-Christian children are inundated with books about people who are not like them. Why wouldn’t they want to read good books about people with whom they can identify?  

As for children who are white, heterosexual and Christian, how are they harmed when learning that not everyone experiences the world and life as they do? Good books about people from nondominant parts of society are additive, not subtractive. 

The only risk in reading something written from the perspective of someone who is, in some way, different than the reader, is that of cultivating empathy. In my book, that’s something to embrace, not fear. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 20, 2022.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Ohio’s abortion law has nothing to do with protecting people with Down syndrome

Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban will not reduce the termination rates of fetuses prenatally diagnosed with the condition.  

Neither will it inform sectors of society — including expectant parents, educators and heath care professionals — what it means to have Down syndrome today, something far different than when infants with Down syndrome were overwhelmingly institutionalized, often for life.  

Nor will the ban further improve the lives of Ohio’s citizens who have Down syndrome — a goal in deep need of legislative support. 

All it will do, by making it a fourth-degree felony for a physician to perform an abortion if they know a woman is seeking it specifically because her fetus may have Down syndrome, is create a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As a result, pregnant women in Ohio are now prevented from having meaningful discourse with their physicians. 

So why was this bill proposed and passed in the first place? The answer, I believe, has little to do with protecting people with Down syndrome, like my 8-year-old daughter, Lyra. 

The law was challenged in court soon after then-Gov. John Kasich signed it into law in 2017. The District Court granted an injunction, which a three-judge panel on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld, preventing the law from going into effect. 

But last month the 6th Circuit’s full panel of judges reversed course and upheld Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban, all but guaranteeing that the case will now go to the Supreme Court.  

The 1973 Supreme Court decision in the case Roe v. Wade declared that restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban does seem to cross that threshold of unconstitutionality. And the court’s 9-7 split decision underscores this. Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

The fact is, Ohio is not alone in passing restrictive abortion laws that don’t meet the constitutional qualifiers set out in Roe v. Wade. In 2018, a similar ban in Indiana was struck down in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. But other so-called “reason” bans, or prohibitions for abortions if sought for a fetus’ gender, race or medical diagnosis have been enacted in over a dozen states in the past few years.  

However, these laws do nothing to reduce discrimination or increase opportunities for women, people of color or those with disabilities. And it is not coincidental that these bans are being pursued simultaneously in a number of states. 

The true motivation behind these bans is the hope that one of them will not only make it to the Supreme Court, but will give the newly majority-conservative justices an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. And this strategy may well succeed.  

But overturning the decision that legalized abortion won’t reduce abortion rates. In fact, they may just as likely increase.  

According to a 2020 Guttmacher Institute report, “In countries that restrict abortion, the percentage of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has increased during the past 30 years, from 36% in 1990–1994 to 50% in 2015–2019.” 

Furthermore, in countries with legal access to abortion, such as the United States, abortion rates have continually declined since legalization. Why is that?  

Simply put, while a functioning democracy rests on four pillars, women’s rights are like a pedestal table. When women cannot control their reproduction, they are significantly less likely to be able to control their education, their careers or their finances. In essence, their full humanity is denied when reproductive rights are restricted. 

Yes, when women are legally and socially treated more equally with men, statistically they have fewer children. And the children they have lead healthier lives with greater access to education and opportunities, which enriches an entire society. 

For example, Bangladesh, which Henry Kissinger called “a basket case” country 50 years ago, is now stable, both economically and in terms of the health of its citizens. This is because for the past 30 years the Bangladeshi government has worked to empower women and support education for all children, including girls. 

Advocates for restricting legal abortions also sometimes rely on an implied falsehood: the notion that supporters of reproductive rights want women to have abortions. Nobody looks at her daughter, sister, friend and says, “Gee, I can’t wait until she has her first abortion.”  

The truth is there are many, many productive discussions that reproductive rights advocates are eager to have that absolutely can lead to a continued reduction of abortion rates.  

The most obvious place to start is with this question: Why do women feel they have no choice but to terminate pregnancies?  

Rather than infantilizing women by criminalizing abortion, let’s solve the problems that lead to abortions. Chief among them is access to contraception.  

If unwanted pregnancy rates decline, so do abortions.  

Take a look at Colorado which, between 2009-2017, used grant funding to provide IUD birth control to teens at health clinics, some in high schools. The abortion rate in that population subsequently dropped by 60%.  

Then, in 2017, Colorado made it legal to obtain birth control pills directly at pharmacies without a visiting a doctor. And, again, abortion rates declined further. 

Women do consider how they will raise a child with a disability when deciding to proceed with a pregnancy. What if, instead of outlawing abortions for children with Down syndrome (or other diagnoses, because it won’t be long before more become prenatally identifiable), we made Ohio the best state for all children to grow up in regardless of ability, race, gender or sexual orientation?   

When Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban was first enacted, I wrote columns expressing my opposition to it in this paper and Immediately I became the subject of several articles written in far-right websites. For a movement that identifies itself with the word “life,” many of its adherents resort to hate speech and death threats with remarkable alacrity. 

But here I am once again calling Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban what it is: feigned sympathy for people like my daughter, deployed to take away her reproductive rights along with those of all Ohio women.  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 2, 2021.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Vote as though our democracy depends on it

Last weekend, I waited 2½ hours to vote at the Summit County Board of Elections (BOE). I have, with few exceptions, voted early and in person since it has been an option in Ohio. Waiting until Election Day stresses me out. What if something comes up and I can’t make it to the polls?

Sure, I could have requested an absentee ballot, as two of my children did. But if my signature is questioned, I was concerned my vote will not get counted. No, thanks, I’ll wait in line.

In prior elections, I’ve voted early with no wait. This year, the BOE set up a 50-foot long canopy tent in their parking lot for voters to stand under while waiting to enter the building.

And wait they do. Three times earlier in the week, the line for in-person voting was too long for me to stay. Meanwhile, cars by the dozens stretched down Grant Street in both directions as voters waited to turn in their absentee ballots at the only drop box in the county.

This election finds historic numbers of people accepting inconvenience to ensure their votes get counted.

I have voted in all presidential, and most non-presidential elections, since 1984. With the exception of 2008, many people, especially younger ones, rarely vote. Oh, they’ll complain about politicians and their policies, but then dismiss voting as a means to direct government.

I suspect that was in part a reflection of a well-functioning government. Young people weren’t agitated enough to exercise their right to vote when things were working well enough.

Today, nobody seems to believe things are working well in America. Turn out for early voting across the country is at historic highs. But will every eligible citizen who wishes to vote have the opportunity? And if they do, will their votes be counted?

In the decades after the passage of significant civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, the Republican Party has made a concerted effort to suppress votes in Democratic strongholds. Recently, their tactics have become openly blatant.

In 1980, Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and founding member of The Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank, said in a video-recorded speech, “I don’t want everybody to vote … As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In 2019, the year after Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller died, his daughter released his external hard drives and thumb drives. Known in GOP circles as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the data on the drives outlined how for years Hofeller helped guarantee safe Republican districts. One only need look at Ohio’s district map with its several snake-shaped districts to see Hofeller’s impact on redistricting.

Hofeller also promoted the idea of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, stating it would reduce the count of Hispanics, a group that predominantly votes Democrat.

In 2000, thousands of Florida voters were misidentified as ex-felons and quietly purged from the voter rolls before the election. At the time, Florida was one of a handful of states that did not allow ex-felons to vote. After the NAACP sued, Florida officials conceded that 12,000 registered voters — who were predominantly black — had been wrongly purged. George W. Bush’s margin of victory in Florida that year was 537 votes.

Some in the GOP saw the Florida purge in 2000 as instructive.

Since then, many Republican-held states have passed voter-suppression laws and rules, including excessive voter ID laws, modern-day equivalents of Jim Crow laws for Native Americans, limits on early voting and reduced polling locations.

The GOP claims these tactics prevent voter fraud, but there is no evidence of such. In a study that reviewed all of the more than 1 billion ballots cast in the US between 2000 and 2014, only 31 instances of voter fraud were found, which is statistically nil.

Why do Republicans work so hard to suppress the votes in Democrat strongholds? The obvious answer is because they don’t want to lose. But the flip side of that is that they rightfully fear their platform no longer appeals to enough Americans for them to win in a majority of districts without gerrymandering and suppressing voters.

A healthy democracy needs two, or more, healthy political parties. America doesn’t have that right now. One positive outcome of a blue tsunami on Tuesday would be for the GOP to reflect on how many Republicans currently don’t recognize their own party.

And, no, the Democratic Party isn’t perfect. Both the Ohio Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee are insiders’ clubs that all too often make bone-headed decisions. Pour a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and I’ll talk all day about frustrations with the Dems’ leadership.

But the Democratic Party does not try to win elections by suppressing Republican votes.

America needs new and vigorous national legislation to expand voting to all eligible citizens while preventing any party from engaging in the chicanery of winning elections by suppressing votes.

In the meantime, vote as though the very existence of democracy in the United States depends upon it. Because, in fact, it does.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 1, 2020.

Civil Rights

Wrong Answer: Akron says yes to sports, no to in-person classes for students with disabilities

The Akron Beacon Journal’s front-page headline on Tuesday read, “Why are all these parents so happy? First day of school brings joy in Summit County.” Unfortunately, that was not the case in the county’s largest district, Akron Public Schools.

Initially, APS announced a blended program for the fall. Pre-school through third grade students would have been in the school buildings five days a week, with all other grades receiving a combination of in-person and (mostly) online instruction.

Older students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) were encouraged to attend in person more frequently than students without IEPs, while all students had the option of 100% online instruction.

That was the right model.

But then, in late July, the APS school board and administration reversed course and announced the first nine-week grading period of the school year would be entirely online for all students.

The best explanation I’ve been given is that with a large, urban district, many parents are essential workers. Fearing a second wave of COVID-19 would force schools to close only a few weeks into the first term, the board thought such a potential shift would make it difficult for these families to plan.

There are a few problems with this approach.

First of all, precisely because many APS parents are essential workers, many young students have no adults available to help them with online instruction when they need it. I’ve heard stories from teachers across the district of second and third grade students helping their younger siblings access their Chromebook lessons and also walking to school alone to pick up their free lunches.

Secondly, the regular flu season will kick in roughly the same time the second grading period begins, most likely making it harder to begin in-person instruction at that time.

This first grading period, before the regular flu arrives and while the weather remains mild enough for open windows and outdoor instruction, should have been used to help our most vulnerable students catch up.

Why? Because evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that remote-only learning is detrimental to students with special educational needs (see “Remote Learning Doesn’t Support Special Education Learners“).

That is why my daughter’s father and I have hired a tutor, currently at our own expense, to meet with 8-year-old Lyra, who has Down syndrome, and other students in an outdoor classroom in our yard five mornings a week.

Furthermore, many teachers have expressed a willingness to hold in-person instruction in the school buildings with the children who most need it, including some who have worked with Lyra.

But the school board and district administrators will not budge and have repeatedly denied the request for Lyra and other students with disabilities to be taught in the buildings.

Safety first!

Then, in a special meeting called last Tuesday, the school board reversed another prior decision. This time one that had cancelled all contact sports for the fall term. Now, all sport are allowed to proceed. Why? Because parents demanded it.

According to APS board member Derrick Hall, whom I both voted for and wrote to about the need for children with disabilities to receive in-person instruction this fall, the board changed course on sports because, “We had a very sort of loud and active parental component to this. There were multiple petitions that went around that had several thousand signatures,” Hall said.

He further elaborated, “I think that being a member of a community elected board, it’s important to sort of take [the] pulse and sort of notice when you have that kind of activism going on around an issue.”

Hmm. So somehow athletes at who are running, tackling, tagging, sliding to bases and yelling can remain safe in a global pandemic but kids with IEPs quietly receiving in-person instruction in mostly empty school buildings cannot?

I call foul.

The district’s policy openly flouts the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that in July a federal judge said has not in any way been watered down due to COVID. He specifically stated that students with IEPs requiring in-person instruction must receive in-person instruction, so long as it can be done safely.

While I question the safety of contact sports in our K-12 schools— even major league teams using all the protective measures money can buy have had COVID outbreaks — I don’t begrudge the parents who want their kids to play.

But educating our students, particularly those with disabilities, should always be the school district’s No. 1 priority. Instead, bending to loud pressure, the board has prioritized playing games over educating minds.

Let me be clear: There is no federal law that says sports must carry on, but there is one that says in-person instruction, when part of an IEP, must. Clearly, our most vulnerable students don’t all have parents who can mount a squeaky-oil campaign to force our school board into compliance with federal law.

But a small group of attorneys can.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 6, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Changing racial justice starts inside you, white America

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

— From “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

The same day Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, author Eudora Welty wrote a prescient short story from the perspective of the killer. Welty’s insight into the mind of the white supremacist, who waited near the Black civil rights activist’s home before shooting him in the back, was not the product of supernatural powers.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve lived here all my life. I know the kind of mind that did this,’ ” Welty said in a 1972 interview. Sadly, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” remains as insightful as when it was written in 1963.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the need to discuss racism in America. And, predictably, I received a handful of letters spewing hackneyed racist tropes.

However, I received far more letters asking for resources to better understand America’s history of slavery and its legacy in institutionalized, systemic racism.

As I wrote before, getting to know people who are different in any way — including color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or ability — is one of the best ways to dissipate the sense of otherness and recognize the humanity of all people.

But it is not the job of Black folks to teach white folks to become “woke” and understand what Black Americans have lived with all their lives, generation after generation for 401 years.

To my earnest readers, I sent a list of articles, movies, interviews, books and podcasts to better understand what, as white Americans, we often don’t see because it is not a part of our experience.

Of course, as soon as I pressed “send,” I immediately thought of things I’d forgotten to include. The truth is finding fact-based, quality sources on how and why racism in America remains an enduring contradiction to our Constitution, and the fallacy that we live in a meritocracy, is not hard.

Here is a small set of recommendations:

Shortly after it was published in 1996, I read Leon Dash’s book “Rosa Lee: A Generational Tale of Poverty and Survival in Urban America.” Derived from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, eight-part series for the Washington Post, Dash spent three years interviewing Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family.

Dash’s extensive research on D.C.’s urban underclass, including chapters on the history and sociology of African American sharecroppers in the South after the Civil War and the later Great Migration to the North, was my first exposure to the depth of the chasm under the whitewashed education I received.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author, anthropologist and filmmaker. Lived 1891-1960.

I had read novels, including “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, both of which paint compelling and tragic pictures of 20th century life for Black Americans. But until “Rosa Lee” I’d not read nonfiction accounts informed by academic research.

I’ve since tried to fill the void in my education on a number of topics. And yet, as my grandma often told me, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.

The 2016 documentary, “The 13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, recounts how time and again when one system of racial suppression is eliminated in America, another quickly takes its place. Several notable scholars and journalists are interviewed in the film, which I recommend everyone watch, no matter how much or how little you know about this history.

For narrative film, there is no director with more clarion ability to represent many aspects of Black lives and history than Spike Lee. “Do the Right Thing” is particularly topical right now, three decades after it was released, for the Black anger it accurately depicts like no movie before.

For a thorough recounting of the myriad ways our government policies have intentionally disadvantaged Black Americans, read MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations.”

The podcast “Code Switch” and its newsletter provide black perspectives on current affairs. So does journalist Roxane Gay. And the discussions with mostly Black guests on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, who is biracial, provide insights not found elsewhere.

For those willing to read books, consider “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “Letter to My Son” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton, “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.’s essential work, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

This month, I had the honor to meet the mother of the young black man who recently, while waiting at a bus stop, was harassed by an older white man with a shotgun. She told me some of her white friends said, “I can’t believe that happened to James, we know him!”

That disbelief is the product of white privilege.

White mothers, no matter how rich or poor, do not fear when their sons leave the house: What if he’s pulled over by the police? Or hunted down by white supremacists in a pickup? Or harassed at a bus stop by a man with a shotgun?

Over the centuries, we have changed laws regarding race without changing our country’s bone-deep racial caste system. For that, we need to change hearts and minds. It starts with you.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 5, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Let’s talk about racism in America

Public art protest installation by Jules Christensen listing the last 100 victims killed by police in America.

Can I fully understand the African-American experience? No, because as a white woman, I have not lived the African-American experience. Does that mean I should not speak about the African-American experience? No. For as Dr. King said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Each semester, my University of Akron students study a unit on institutional racism in America. Last year, I used both the comprehensive articles in the New York Times’s 1619 Project and the documentary “College Behind Bars.”

America’s first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619. And our racist history, which began even earlier with the treatment of indigenous people, did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Our systems of education, health care, housing, banking and more are all intentionally designed to discriminate against people of color.

And our judicial system, from the violent policing in current headlines, to biased prosecutors with too much power, to unequal sentencing are all a direct carryover of our slave-economy past.

More than half my students are black, and I don’t need to tell them institutional racism is alive and well in America. They experience it every day of their lives.

But like the children of immigrants, who often understand their parents’ native language but cannot speak it fluently, my black students benefit from a close examination of America’s racist history and the response of black communities.

For my white students, studying the history of institutional racism and its connection to slavery opens their eyes to a fundamental portion of American history that they were never adequately taught, if at all.

While the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, it contained a caveat quickly found useful by many Southern, and some Northern, states wishing to ensure white supremacy:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Almost immediately Black Codes replaced the previous slave codes, which had regulated the lives of enslaved and freed black Americans until emancipation. Black Codes were laws that applied only to black citizens.

Vagrancy, in the Black Codes, meant a number of things from unemployment to loitering and could land a black person in jail. Black prisoners were then rented out as laborers, often to their former masters.

When later Constitutional amendments outlawed Black Codes, they were replaced by Jim Crow laws under which, among other things, 3,462 black Americans (that we know of) were lynched between 1882 and 1968.

I once read Martin Luther King Jr. Day mostly belongs to black Americans, because it was Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement that ended white Americans’ widespread terrorism of black people. And not just in the South, for at its peak in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had more members in Indiana than any other state.

One hundred years after the Thirteenth Amendment became law, the passage of Civil Rights legislation, actualized by centuries of advocacy by people of all colors, brought the Declaration of Independence closer than ever to its promise:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

But in short order, a previous system of suppression was once again replaced by a new one: mass incarceration. Due to policies targeting black Americans, evocative of the Black Codes, the number of people in our prisons has grown from 200,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million today.

And yet, many whites do not believe white privilege exists.

For five years of my childhood, I lived in a rural community in Ohio that was overwhelmingly pro-union and Democrat. Today, the classmates who’ve remained in Miami County, which is 96 percent white, are overwhelming Trump Republicans.

Good people who love their families and community, they believe COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax and that Black Lives Matter is not only unnecessary, but also responsible for the looting at protests — which they believe to be far worse than any factual reporting indicates.

As frustrating as it can be, particularly since they refuse to read anything that might contradict their positions, I continue to interact with these people, whom I’ve known for 45 years.

Civil discourse has transformative power for all involved, and a key part of that is listening. Perhaps there’s never been enough listening and civil interaction in the world, but today it seems rarer than ever.

And it’s not just white conservatives who deny racism exists. A 2007 study revealed that 75 percent of white parents never, or rarely, talk about race with their children, thinking that not doing so will make their children “color-blind.” Research indicates nothing could be further from the truth.

In their article, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman state that “children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue — but we tell kids that ‘pink’ is for girls and ‘blue’ is for boys. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”

When discussing the differences among white, black and brown people — which are zero in terms of potential — it’s essential to tell children how our systems continue to benefit white people, especially white men, over all others.

In responding to research questionnaires, a majority of white, male college undergraduates state that bigotry is no longer a problem in the United States. That wildly incorrect perception is derived from the fact that white males very rarely experience discrimination.

My first three sons graduated from Firestone, one of the best high schools in the region. Firestone provides not only excellent academics, but its School of the Arts also is so robust that many students from rich suburban districts apply for open enrollment.

My boys regularly state that what they value most, however, is that Firestone serves a diverse student population. Groups of people are only perceived as “other” until you spend time with them. This is true whether the difference is race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability (both physical and intellectual).

For as far as we’ve come toward creating an equal society in America, we still have much work to do to. Two hundred and thirty-three years after it was written, the words of our Constitution unfortunately remain aspirational and not actual.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 14, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Education a giant step toward freedom

Since classes at the University of Akron resumed on March 30, I teach the same class twice daily to accommodate my students’ schedules because some are essential workers while others have returned to homes in other time zones.

In a physical classroom, I seldom sit down. I walk between desks asking questions of students in an effort to spark discussion and as many “Ah-ha!” moments as possible.

Now, sitting at my desk in my home office, my students’ faces appear in little boxes on my laptop screen. Rather than robust discussions, we practically have to use Robert’s Rules of Order to hear one another.

In-person classes were abruptly and necessarily halted due to COVID-19. We lost two weeks of instruction while everyone scrambled to move to online instruction. I worry whether I can sufficiently prepare my students for next semester’s required composition course in rhetoric.

While we were off, I assigned the new documentary by filmmaker Lynn Novick, “College Behind Bars.” During our first week back, we discussed each of the four, hour-long episodes.

Bard College, through it’s Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), offers coursework in several New York state prisons where incarcerated individuals can earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. The program is overwhelmingly funded by private donations, which is pound foolish of our government.

For every dollar spent on college in prison, taxpayers save five dollars through dramatically reduced recidivism rates. Furthermore, receiving an education has the added advantage of giving a person, once released from prison, a far better chance of becoming an employed — and therefore tax-paying — citizen.

Dyjuan Tatro, 31, has served 11 years for violent gang and drug crimes. He is a math major with a 3.72 GPA and was part of the team of inmates who beat Harvard in a debate.

In the fourth episode of the series, Dyjuan Tatro, one of Bard’s incarcerated students says: “For the first time in my life, education is something I’ve totally dedicated myself to. How do I communicate the impact education is having on me? This is changing fundamentally the way I think, believe and [the way I] interact with people.”

Tatro finished his B.A. in mathematics after he was released in 2017. After working for an elected official and a technology firm, he’s now back at BPI as their government affairs and advancement officer, procuring funding to expand the program.

That’s a compelling message for students like mine, who are also reaching for the benefits of an education in difficult, if not as extreme as prison, circumstances. I contacted Tatro, and on April 8 he gave a compelling online lecture to my students.

In 1970, the United States had a prison population of roughly 196,000. Today, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of having more people imprisoned than any other country: 2.1 million incarcerated individuals, with another 4.5 million people on probation or parole.

Tatro pointed out that the increased number of people in prison does not correlate to a commensurate increase in the rate of crime. It is instead due to bad policies, most famously perhaps the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill, which created the “three strikes” rule in which people thrice convicted of even small, non-violent offenses were sentenced to prison for decades or, all too often, life.

That same bill also eliminated federal funding for college coursework in prisons, effectively ending most efforts to rehabilitate the swelling number of incarcerated people in America.

As our prison population mushroomed, so did the monetization of incarceration. Prisons, Tatro pointed out, are now considered economic stimulus vehicles for one group of poor people, often poor farming communities, to oversee the imprisonment of another group of poor people, often urban people of color.

My students wanted to know if Tatro saw his time in prison as a blessing in disguise, a question he’s often asked.

His answer could not have been more clear:

″Prison isn’t good for anyone and it’s not a blessing in any way. But Bard College was a blessing and it changed the trajectory of my life. Unfortunately, we live in a country that doesn’t provide all its citizens equal access to education.”

In one of the last public events I attended before gatherings were suspended by COVID-19, I ran into the president of the University of Akron, Dr. Gary Miller. I introduced myself and asked if he’d read the open letter I wrote to him in this column last November. In it, I encouraged him to do more to support our first-generation and at-risk students.

“We’re doing a lot more than you know,” was his answer. Hmmm, I thought, if that’s so, the university is doing a great job keeping those things secret.

Gosh, if I knew about these mysterious things, I would no longer ask students to sit with me in the library while doing their schoolwork in order to build effective study habits, or walk them to the health center, the counseling center and the writing lab.

What I said was, “I’m on the ground, in the classroom working with these students.”

“Oh, well, we have a lot of plans we just need to put them into place,” replied Miller before making a quick exit. Miller’s second comment is the opposite of “We are doing more than you know.”

Not only defensive, Miller’s answer was politically tone deaf. How hard would it have been to have instead said, “We share your concerns?” My open letter to Miller was full of encouragement for his tenure, though critical of the university’s board of trustees, a perspective commonly held by everyone who cares about UA’s students.

Esi Edugyan, author of the 2018 award-winning novel, “Washington Black,” said in an interview that while we think of slavery as the bondage of bodies, it also enslaved minds. How many brilliant enslaved men and women were never able to fulfill their potential to become scientists, writers, leaders? Their loss is everyone’s loss.

The University of Akron is an urban college with many first-generation college students and an abysmal graduation rate. My at-risk students are mostly intelligent, engaged young adults whose lives are full of competing responsibilities. We have a duty to support their education as it can have the same tremendous impact on their lives that Bard College had on Dyjuan Tatro.

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Inclusion is a blessing for all

I first saw Todd Eisinger’s photo in Firestone High School’s Hall of Fame when my eldest son, Claude, was a sophomore. Todd’s picture hangs alongside other accomplished Firestone alums, including astronaut Judith Resnik and rock star Chrissie Hynde.

Todd is in the lineup as an athlete who swam for Firestone. Later, in China in 2007, Todd won four medals in swimming events at the World Special Olympics Summer Games. For you see, Todd has Down syndrome.

In 2012, the same summer Claude graduated from Firestone, our daughter Lyra was born with Down syndrome. She was less than 24 hours old when my obstetrician asked if I knew Todd Eisinger. I said I did not, for I had never learned the name of the young man in the photo at Firestone.

The first weeks of Lyra’s life were unsurprisingly intense as Max and I experienced a rush of emotions and concerns. We knew little more than anecdotes about raising a child with DS. But even more distressing were the eye surgeries Lyra underwent at 5 weeks and 6 weeks old to remove her bilateral, congenital cataracts.

Two months later, as I pushed Lyra’s stroller into a shop, a clerk spied a book on Down syndrome in the stroller’s basket. She enthusiastically asked me, “Does your baby have Down syndrome?” When I told her she did, the young woman said her cousin Todd Eisinger had DS and he just blew her away — there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do when he set his mind to it.

In 1982, Debby and Lee Eisinger brought a child with DS into a world very different than I did in 2012. Things have changed because of the Eisingers and other parents who, in the 1980s and ’90s, adamantly advocated for their children. Their persistent work made possible endless opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities where few had existed before.

Perhaps the most important change has been the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life, rather than sequestering them, as was the norm for far too long. Todd’s life and accomplishments are a testament to the value of inclusion.

In Akron Public Schools, Lyra attends a general ed classroom where an aide keeps her on task. Each day, one of the school’s interventionists (what we used to call special ed teachers) pulls Lyra from her classroom for additional instruction.

Students enthusiastically greet Lyra in the hallways and classroom, often stopping to hug her. Kids understand what many adults do not yet, which is children with disabilities are not to be feared.

Unlike when her brothers were 7 years old, Lyra does not receive invitations to birthday parties or playdates. And this, I believe, is the legacy of parents who did not grow up in communities where children with disabilities were included and who are, therefore, unsure of what inviting such a child means and how they will behave.

Study after study has shown that inclusion maximizes the potential of children with disabilities. But it also benefits the typical population. Spending time with people who are not just like you increases awareness of how little different they actually are. This is as true with physical and intellectual abilities as it is with race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

At last summer’s National Down Syndrome Congress convention, joining a church choir was on a long list of inclusion opportunities. As longtime readers may recall, two years ago Max and I, who are practicing Buddhists, joined the choir at Westminster Presbyterian Church because our dear friend Jim Mismas, who had been the organist and choir director for 23 years, was retiring.

Last year, after our friend retired, we attended church services from time to time, visiting with parishioners we now call friends.

This year, Leif and Lyra are members of the children’s choir, and we are again regularly attending church. Max sings with the adult choir while I sit with Leif and Lyra in the pews. I love singing in the choir, but equally enjoy nestling with our children for the first part of the service.

When the children’s sermon is called, Lyra gallops down the aisle to the chancel steps. Then, after the short talk, the kids are dismissed for their choir practice, which Max also attends, helping Lyra learn the routine.

Leif and Lyra wait to perform in the Westminster Christmas Pageant on Dec. 12This month, Leif and Lyra participated in the Christmas pageant. During the first rehearsal, Lyra, in the role of an angel, fiddled with her halo until it broke. Rehearsing on the morning of the pageant, Lyra refused to stand to the side of the chancel with the other angels. She wanted to sit on the steps with the manger animals. And so, shortly before the performance, Lyra became one of them.

“Sheep! Sheep!” Lyra repeated in the pew before the service began, her fuzzy costume covering her mouth. Several parishioners near us giggled with delight.

I do not believe any one religion is exclusively right and all others are wrong. I do believe it is important to tend to the spiritual lives of our children. And so, because most Buddhist centers are not set up to accommodate children, for many years I took my sons to a Buddhist family camp in Vermont. And yet, while a lovely way to spend a week, it is an inadequate substitute for a local spiritual community.

In a recent sermon, Westminster Presbyterian Church’s pastor told his congregation that a welcoming community makes visitors return and become members. This Presbyterian church within walking distance from our home openly invites our slightly unconventional family to participate in warm and thoughtful spiritual practice. And it is a place where Lyra is not just welcomed but cherished by members willing to meet her where she’s at. It’s a blessing to us all.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 29, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Supporting student success should be top priority of universities

Dear University of Akron President Gary Miller:

Welcome to Akron, a great place to live for many reasons: its park-filled river valley, friendly residents and housing stock, over which a Goodyear Blimp regularly sails, that is both gorgeous and affordable. Also, we have a killer library system, art museum and performance venues.

And, of course, there’s the University of Akron.

Several recent publications on thriving small cities in America, including the book “Our Towns” by Deborah and James Fallows, cite the presence of a local university as a key ingredient. Nowhere is this truer than here.

But the past decade has been difficult. After a period of overly ambitious campus-wide renovations, the university has struggled financially. Many employees feel the response to the fiscal crisis by prior administrators and the board of trustees has been to knock out the supports many students need to succeed.

In light of your early actions and communications, the current temperature on campus is guarded optimism. Your recent “Principles for Planning” letter and “Affirming Our Promises” strategic plan indicate that we may finally have a leader as committed to the success of our students as most UA staff and faculty are.

According to the university’s website, approximately 24% of our students are first-generation college attendees. As an adjunct instructor in the English department, I’ve found it’s more than half in my freshman composition classes. Many of these students arrive on campus believing they are college-ready when, in fact, they are not.

Oh, it’s not that they aren’t smart and hard-working. They are that and more. I suspect students from inner-city school districts were passed along because they were bright and not disruptive.

And many rural communities do not have rich enough tax bases to fund college-prep academics. This is a problem for these students but also for UA, where fewer than half our students obtain a bachelor’s degree after eight years on the main campus. And it’s a problem for our community, because we need UA graduates to join Akron’s workforce. The stronger our workforce, the more likely businesses will locate and stay here.

What can be done to adequately support UA students so that most obtain a bachelor’s degree in a reasonable amount of time?

A lot more than we do now.

The Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) does many things to address these issues. They have their own opt-in orientation program that, along with the usual components, provides information on what supports are available. And perhaps most importantly, they have a peer-mentorship program.

Over 90% of the student mentors graduate.

OMD was once run by eight full-time staffers and one administrative assistant. But due to funding cuts, for the past several years there have only been two full-time staffers and one admin (last month a third staff member was hired). All OMD services, including the augmented orientations, have suffered as a result.

Again, due to funding cuts, the Writing Lab, which I require all my students to use, also has a skeletal staff compared to a decade ago. Nor does the Writing Lab have a dedicated director who, when it did, held instructional meetings on strategies to help students become effective writers — something needed in all professions.

The Help-a-Zip program allows faculty to refer students for whom they have any concerns, be it academic, personal, mental health or financial. This important safety net is staffed by one person.

When my eldest son went to the University of Michigan, he was automatically placed in their Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP), because he had graduated from an inner-city school. UM admissions also targets students from rural districts and first-gen college attendees for this program.

The CSP includes its own group of academic advisers, workshops and free tutoring for a variety of subjects, including math and foreign language, all of which my son took advantage. Three years after he graduated, he is still in touch with his CSP adviser.

North Central College in Illinois also actively supports first-gen students. As one student put it in a recent NPR story, “We don’t have anyone in our families to rely on to give us that advice [for figuring out college],” she says, “so we need some help from the broader community to help us to get on board.”

In workshops and lectures, NCC teaches first-gen students how to successfully navigate college. They also provide free meals — once a week for freshmen and once a month for sophomores — where students are joined by faculty who are also first-gen.

Students who participate in a majority of these events receive a $1,000 recurring scholarship.

The support systems in place at UA are whispers of what they should be, due to lack of revenue, not lack of will. Some of that revenue was cut by the state, but plenty more resulted from the runaway expansion plan, and resulting fiscal deficit, by your predecessor Luis Proenza.

President Scott Scarborough, hired to fix the deficit, made matters worse. No matter how poorly thought-out, both men’s whims enjoyed the rubber-stamping of the same board of trustees.

We live in an era of economic disparity unseen since the Gilded Age. UA exists to educate students and yet we cannot fund the most basic supports for our students. That your two aforementioned predecessors receive a combined total of $633,000 a year from the university’s coffers — for which they provide nothing of value — is immoral. Those who permitted such unabashed plundering should go.

The challenge for you to make UA again work for its most important constituency, our students, is great. So please know that if you continue to take appropriate measures to promote academic excellence for all students, you will enjoy the strong support of all those who work with UA’s students. For your success will be everyone’s success.

Godspeed —

Holly Christensen

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 17, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Cleveland’s Playhouse Square understands importance of sensory-friendly productions

During his job interview with Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Daniel Hahn was asked about programming he wished to initiate. He then pulled from his valise a framed photo of two boys — his son and his son’s best friend — hamming for the camera.

“I want my son’s best friend to be able to enjoy live performance at Playhouse Square. I want sensory-friendly productions,” Hahn said. As he explained that his son is a typical learner and the friend is on the autism spectrum and nonverbal, Hahn choked up and thought he’d blown the interview.

Luckily for Northeast Ohio, Hahn’s passion for a population previously not served by Playhouse Square sealed the deal. He has served as its vice president of community engagement and education for the past six years.

What does it mean to have a sensory-friendly event and why is it important?

Until this past year, we could not take our daughter, Lyra, who has Down syndrome, to the movies. As soon as the lights went down, she’d try to race up the aisle and leave the theater. Other people with sensory processing issues may shout out when something excites them, or need to move around or, conversely, lie down in a quiet, dimly lit room.

What are sensory processing issues and who has them?

According to Dr. Jessica Foster, the director of Akron Children’s Hospital’s Department of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, sensory processing disorder is not a medical diagnosis, but a condition typically seen in conjunction with other diagnoses. Some of these diagnoses include autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome, as well as dyslexia.

Sensory processing disorder involves a heightened sensitivity to sound, light and touch. Lyra does not like loud environments, even at fun places, such as an aquarium we visited in June when several busloads of children were also there.

Processing behaviors can make a variety of public events difficult, if not impossible, for many families. But in the last 10 years, sensory-friendly accommodations have begun popping up like flowers after a spring rain. Such events minimize triggers — loud noises, bright or flashing lights — while providing a number of ways to assuage sensory overload.

In Akron, Summit Mall has sensory-friendly times with Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Akron Soap Box Derby has an annual inclusion day. Next weekend, Akron will host the first-ever sensory-inclusive marathon. (Akron sure gets a lot right.)

But those events are held in open public spaces where a variety of behaviors are more easily tolerated. Not so with a live theater production. Like the best friend of Hahn’s son, the unpredictability of Lyra’s responses often rules out our attending live performances. It’s just too stressful.

However, since 2014, after Hahn was hired, Playhouse Square has presented nine sensory-friendly, one-hour plays. Each year, they provide one performance for school groups and another for the general public, all at the very affordable price of $10 a ticket.

These sensory-friendly productions have welcomed thousands of sensory sensitive individuals and their families.

Leif, Max and Lyra eagerly await “The Lion King”

Last month, Playhouse Square presented its first big kahuna, or rather “hakuna,” as in “Hakuna Matata”: a sensory-friendly, full-length performance of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

When the play began, the lights did not go down, the audience did not become quiet, children did not sit still in their seats. Seated on her father’s lap while large-as-life puppets of African animals paraded down the aisles to the stage, Lyra flapped her hands with excitement.

For each sensory performance, Playhouse Square rents pipes and curtains to create sensory-deprivation rooms for kids who need to decompress from sensory overload. One little boy ran in circles for a few moments in one of the created rooms. Others jumped up and down or stomped.

These behaviors are described as “proprioceptive input” in which the larger joints of the body are impacted. The impact on the large joints increases serotonin and dopamine levels, thereby helping the overstimulated person to calm down.

Playhouse Square also hires volunteers from the Cuyahoga County Developmental Disability Board. Strategically placed, the volunteers hand out headphones and fidget toys to kids who need them.

The “Red Coats,” as the ushers are called because of their scarlet blazers, arrive in the morning for a two-hour training session and a lunch provided by Playhouse Square.

Sign language interpreters Merry Beth Pietila and Erin LaFountain from the Theatrical Interpreting Services of Cleveland provided dramatic and engaging sign interpretation throughout the performance.

Finally, in order to reach as many families as possible, Playhouse Square deeply discounts the tickets for sensory performances. Which is to say, this is an expensive endeavor for a nonprofit organization, underscoring Playhouse Square’s commitment to providing sensory-friendly productions.

In fact, it is because of generous donations from people like Denise and Norm Wells that Playhouse Square can fulfill its mission to provide these performances that allow Lyra, and many others who’ve previously been excluded, to enjoy live theater.

Please note: Never buy tickets from a ticket broker, i.e., professional scalper. Two delightful young women seated next to us did not know they were coming to a sensory-friendly performance.

In an effort to get tickets to the appropriate audience and provide essential accommodations, a questionnaire accompanied the purchase of tickets to the sensory-friendly performance of “The Lion King.” Clearly a ticket broker had falsified answers and then resold the discounted tickets, at a profit, to the women next to us.

During the first act of “The Lion King,” Hahn stood at the back of the theater with his board’s president, Amy Brady, her husband and other staff members. It was not the play that they watched, but the audience. And each of them, to a person, wept with joy at what they saw.

Stay tuned: Playhouse Square is working to bring another sensory-friendly Broadway Series performance next August. If and when it is finalized, I’ll be sure to write about it.

Upcoming sensory-friendly performances at Playhouse Square include:

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 22, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Sensible gun laws are long overdue

When I moved from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to 22 Green St. in Dayton the spring I was 19, it felt like a homecoming. My peripatetic childhood included 10 schools, but between the ages of 9 and 14, I lived in a rural community just north of Dayton.

Like Akron, Dayton is a smaller city just 30 minutes from a bigger city. Both have wonderful housing stock, beautiful rivers, lovely architecture — including old YMCAs — and art museums with dramatic expansions.

In the ’70s, the manufacturing industry sustained Dayton’s working middle class. Both parents of my friends next door were factory foremen. Their large house, with an in-ground pool, was new, as were the cars they drove. Every summer they took their beautiful boat to Canada for several weeks.

Like Akron, Dayton’s factory jobs poured away in the final decades of the last century.

One difference between the two cities of my Ohio heart is leadership. While Mayor Don Plusquellic successfully steered Akron through its hardest decades, Dayton had a series of mediocre and even outright abysmal mayors. Until now.

Mayor Nan Whaley has long impressed me with her intelligent guidance of and passion for Dayton and its citizens. In the weeks since the shooting on East Fifth Street, she’s become my hero.

The trolley taking the wedding party and guests to the reception. August 31, 1985.

My first summer living in the Oregon District, I planned my wedding and worked at a vintage clothing store on East Fifth Street. In August, after my wedding at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a trolley took the guests down East Fifth to the reception at Stouffer’s hotel.

A short walk from the duplex we rented, my husband and I regularly met friends at venues on East Fifth for drinks, to play pool and hear live music. I enjoyed living, without fear, in the Oregon District — a delightful neighborhood — for two years.

Second Amendment rights and limits

A former student of mine received his first rifle on his fifth birthday. Learning how to safely shoot, clean and store his gun taught him responsibility at an early age. He became a Scholastic champion in the sport of shooting and was offered scholarships by several colleges with rifle teams.

It may surprise you that this young man’s desire for sensible gun legislation is as strong as his love of shooting. Like many his age, he’s grown up under the shadows of mass shootings. He experienced a lockdown in his high school after a student credibly threatened to kill as many students as possible.

David Jolly, a former congressman who recently switched his party allegiance from Republican to Independent, wrote in an article in USA Today after the Dayton and El Paso shootings:

“It’s not because of mental health. It’s because those who suffer from mental health challenges have easy access to firearms in the United States.

“It’s not because too many today subscribe to platforms of hate. It’s because those who espouse hate have easy access to firearms in the United States.

“It’s not because youth are exposed to violent video games. It’s because youth who are exposed to violent video games have easy access to firearms in the United States.”

Plenty of other developed countries have young men with mental illness, white supremacists and people who play violent video games. What they don’t have is easy access to firearms, nor endless mass shootings. When defined as four or more people (not including the shooter) shot in one place at one time, from Jan. 1 to July 31 of this year, 248 mass shootings have occurred in America.

Anything else that killed that many people a year would marshal a call for research by the Centers for Disease Control, but not here. In 1996, the NRA pushed for the successful passage of the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the CDC from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” The CDC’s articles on suicide prevention are bizarrely written in code-speak as they cannot directly mention the significant role firearms play in the number of Americans who take their own lives.

If cars killed lots of people each year, everyone would be required to register each and every vehicle they own and pass a licensure test before being allowed to drive. Oh, wait. They are. And yet we don’t expect the same for deadly weapons, including those designed for the battlefield, which can kill scores of people in seconds.

This is not sensible. Thirty years ago, the chance of being gunned down in the Oregon District never crossed my mind. Today, children cannot enjoy that same sense of safety going to school. Nor can their parents.

In the weeks after the Marjorie Stone Douglas High School shooting, my friend Cris, who is also a teacher, threatened to take away her daughter’s cellphone. But when Cris dropped her child off at high school, she thought, “What if today there’s a shooting and the last time I talk to my daughter is when she calls to tell me goodbye?” Her daughter kept her phone.

Last year, I met with several former classmates in Dayton. Not for a class reunion, but a funeral. Samantha Howard Freels told her husband she was leaving him, walked out of their house and got in her car. Her husband of more than 30 years chased her down in his truck, forced her off the road and shot her.

Days earlier, Sam had taken her three grandchildren to a diner for breakfast. In the photos she posted on Facebook, Sam had used an app to sprinkle hearts around their faces.

After she died, I learned that her husband had broken her leg years ago when she’d tried to leave him. He promised their four sons he wouldn’t lay a hand on their mother again if she stayed.

Would red flag laws have saved Sam’s life? I’ll never know. But it’s time to implement them. It’s also time to close all loopholes on background checks. Every gun purchased or gifted should require registration and a background check for the new owner. Most gun owners also agree with these reasonable measures.

Such laws are little to require when the failure to do so has caused the murder of so many innocent children, women and men.


This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 25, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Today’s immigration stories are little different than those of previous generations

When 13-year-old Christina Gyllenskog and her family left their country forever, she had never been away from her family’s farm for more than a short while.

Mormon missionaries converted the family in North Sandby, Sweden, and soon thereafter my great-great grandma Christina, her parents and five siblings traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark. There, her two sisters, presumably too old to be eligible for an immigration loan from the Mormon church, took factory jobs to earn enough money for passage to America.

The rest of the family boarded the Humboldt, a German ship, in Hamburg on July 19, 1866. Before the six-week journey, water was pulled from the River Elbe. The water quickly turned black in wooden barrels burnt on the inside or red in barrels of iron. The beds were wooden planks without mattresses, and eventually the food became so rancid that hogs onboard refused to eat.

In 1895, Christina’s 49-year-old husband died just five months after she’d given birth to her 10th child. As a single mom, she raised all 10 to adulthood.

After disembarking in New York, the family traveled by train to Florence, Nebraska, along the western banks of the Mississippi River. From there, they walked 1,300 miles to Salt Lake City. Initially, the Gyllenskogs lived in a partially subterranean sod home. When it rained, everyone ran to pick up the large bag of flour before the water flowed into the earthen dwelling.

Another branch of the family buried their 3-year-old daughter on the Mormon Trail after she was bitten by a poisonous snake. Others were confronted by Native Americans on horseback, who did not allow the pioneers to pass until they gave over whatever they could.

Eventually the Gyllenskogs built a frame house with four large rooms in Smithfield, Utah, and the sisters joined the family. Christina always chastised her sisters for speaking Swedish, but unlike herself, they were grown women when they arrived in America.

An older friend recently told me her great-grandparents sent their two children from Europe to America alone. My friend’s grandfather was 18 and his sister a young child when they were put on a boat. In the chaos at Ellis Island, the siblings became separated and were never reunited.

Unless you are 100 percent Native American or African-American (or a combination of the two) you, too, have ancestral immigration stories. And I have yet to meet someone who isn’t proud of what their ancestors went through to get to America and how they built good lives by working hard at any job they could get.

Irish immigrants were once disparaged as drunkards with questionable morals. Italian immigrants were stereotyped as prone to violence and crime. After decades of helping build America in a number of ways, including construction of the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. It remained on the books until 1940.

Born largely out of a fear of terrorism, today some Americans want to ban Muslim immigrants. Yet, according to a recent article by the CATO Institute, a conservative think tank, even when including “those murdered in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the chance of a person perishing in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil committed by a foreigner… is 1 in 3.8 million per year… [T]he chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee is about 1 in 3.86 billion per year, while the annual chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is [statistically] zero.”

Meanwhile, many Muslim professionals are willing to provide necessary services, such as medical care, to under-served communities, including rural America, where attitudes about Muslims are some of the most uninformed in the country.

People leaving their countries forever, making hard journeys to distant lands where different languages are spoken. People leaving behind all they own and everyone they know and walking more than 1,000 miles to arrive at the Promised Land. People burying their children on the difficult trek; people paying off those who would bar the way to their destination.

These are my ancestors’ immigration stories.

People who are in such dire straits that they send their children alone on an arduous journey, not knowing if they’ll every see them again. That is the immigration story of my friend’s ancestors.

The stories of today’s immigrants applying for asylum at our southern border are remarkably similar to mine, to my friend’s and, I suspect, to many of yours.

In the recent Democratic Party debates, candidate Amy Klobuchar stated, “I believe that immigrants do not diminish America, they ARE America.” This is absolutely true. Yet, we must have an effective system to process immigrants at all points of entry and weed out criminals.

In my rhetoric classes, I tell students, “Never trust a simple solution to a complex problem.” Crafting effective immigration policy is complex. Placing asylum seekers in detention centers is a simple but ineffective solution. It is also unnecessarily cruel.

Continuing to separate children from the adult family members they arrive with, even after ordered by the courts to stop the practice, does not deter immigration and is a violation of basic human rights. My heart aches knowing my country does this every day.

For an example of what difficult, yet productive immigration reform could look like, Google: “This American Life Barbara Jordon Immigration” and listen to the podcast that will populate your screen.

We could use a politician like Barbara Jordon today. She brought together people with divergent positions to craft comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately, Jordan died before she could get her legislation passed. Had she done so, many of today’s immigration problems would have been preempted.

In her latter years, Grandma Christina was formidable and known for her fabulous garden.

Have heart for asylum seekers. They are like most people’s immigrant ancestors, including yours. The innocent children at our borders should be protected, not harmed. In demanding that our elected representatives do their jobs and craft effective immigration reform, no matter how hard the task, we honor our immigrant ancestors.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 11, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Teach children respect and politeness for all

Where and to whom we are born is the ultimate crap shoot. No matter your circumstances, one human is not intrinsically better than another. Minority parents tell their children they are as important as their white friends. Working-class people also understand this. We are hard workers doing whatever we can to manage life well.

Neither of my parents have college degrees. When my father was old enough to collect Social Security, he quit his job of many years as a cashier at a Circle K. My mother worked as a waitress, a secretary and a baker. Both told stories of rude customers.

Modeled behavior is more powerful than encouragement or admonishment and my children observe me chatting with workers wherever I go. To further ensure my kids will never condescend others for their station in life, they have worked in the service industry.

Claude spent a summer at Chipotle and found it the hardest job he’s ever had. Hugo worked at Old Carolina Barbecue his last years of high school. And this summer Jules, who worked with biologists on bee research the past two years, has two retail jobs in Michigan.

These experiences underscore three important lessons.

Lyra and Hugo with our new friend, Matt Dean, who served us at Bitty & Beau’s cafe.

Number one: Acknowledge people. Ask your server or cashier how their day is going. Rather than asking an employee, “Where is such-and-such?” Start with, “Excuse me, can you tell me where…” or “Hi, how are you? Do you know where I can find…”

Even when employees are talking to each other, acknowledge them. At my Acme, many of the cashiers and baggers are high school students who banter with one another. I jump in and joke with them, too.

Get off your cellphone. When people talked on their phones while ordering barbecue, Hugo coyly annoyed them for being rude. “I’m sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” he’d ask over and over.

Number two: Give praise. Everyone, myself included, is quick to let management know when we have a complaint. But what if we were just as eager to share a positive interaction? An employee who made an extra effort to be helpful or friendly?

I often lodge compliments in grocery stores. Things can be hard to find (especially when they remodel your Acme), prices might ring up wrong or not at all. The employee who handles requests and issues with aplomb is an asset to their employer.

Positive feedback makes a difference with raises and promotions. Rightly so, as employers know few customers will stop to give accolades. So when they do, it carries extra weight.

Number three: Say please and thank you. Working-class kids know not to treat adults as servants. When learning language, I taught my children to answer questions with either “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you.”

Children over 5 should not say to an adult, “I’m thirsty,” but rather, “Can I have something to drink, please?” When told the former, I raise an eyebrow like an old school marm and respond, “Is that so?” If they don’t catch my drift, I suggest they try asking.

Handwritten thank-you’s are priceless. I keep a box of cards in the console of my minivan. Before I picked her up on the last day of camp in June, I wrote notes in the parking lot to Lyra’s two counselors, telling them how much I appreciated their kindness and care.

Some professional jobs are also in the service sector, and these people, too, appreciate acknowledgement for a job well done.

My divorce cost my ex-husband and me about $100,000, mostly from our retirement funds. We once paid a highly respected mediator hundreds of dollars to help sort things out. When we left her office, my then-husband said, “See you in battle.”

Three years into the miserable process, we met with the Summit County Domestic Court’s mediator. I’ve seen only a handful of people who are as skilled at bringing contentious negotiations to resolution as Magistrate Deborah Smith Cahan. In an hour and a half, we had an agreement that stuck. And as part of my motion for divorce, it was free! If only we’d seen Magistrate Smith Cahan first…

Eternally grateful for her help with what once seemed irresolute, I sent Magistrate Smith Cahan a thank you. As one of the most stressful times in life, divorce court is full of good people behaving badly. I came to learn Magistrate Smith Cahan is widely respected for her magic-like mediation skills with divorcing couples.

Years later, I ran into her at a grocery store. She told me in all her years mediating for the court, she’d received just six thank you letters, including mine.

Life is never too busy to acknowledge the people who pass through your life and to commend those who make it easier or better. Nobody is too busy to say or write “Thank you.” Not only do these simple measures brighten the days of those you meet, but doing so will put cheer in your heart while also making you a few new friends. I guarantee it.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 14, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Perfect as they are, LGBTQ youths need support and safety

“No, I want you to be happy,” I said. “When growing up, I had friends who couldn’t come out to their parents and I never want any of you to feel that way.”

My friend Tom Dukes, now in his early 60s, recently told me he was lucky he survived junior high in the deep South, where nobody spoke of homosexuality. In ninth grade, he could see freedom awaiting him in college and moved mountains to graduate in three years.

In 2010, gay activist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project ( ). This nonprofit’s mission is to “uplift, empower and connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth around the globe,” letting them know that, for a number of reasons, after high school, life does get better.

Here in Akron where, like many urban areas, our LGBTQ citizens are widely accepted, if not embraced, it might seem no longer necessary to let LGBTQ youths know that things get easier.

Tragically, this is not true.

Only 5 to 7 percent of American youths are LGBTQ. But 40 percent of homeless youths are LGBTQ, 20 percent of incarcerated youths are LGBTQ (the number is higher for females) and, worst of all, 24 percent of 12- to 14-year-old Americans who die by suicide are LGBTQ.

That last fact hit me in the chest like the end of a 4-by-4 this past January when a dear friend lost his grandchild to suicide. The grandchild, who grew up in a rural community outside Dayton, was 14.

From the videos posted by her grieving friends, the teen had come out and was beginning to identify as transgender.

She shared with her family that she felt like a boy, but they did not know the extent of her inner turmoil nor the bullying she endured at school and in the community. That is, until she took her life.

In 2019, we can all do better.

Homosexuality, which some conservative religions condemn, is not unnatural. The already large list of species in which homosexuality has been observed continually grows, including all bird species that form parental relationships. Indeed, one of the many evolutionary benefits of homosexuality is having more adults available to parent offspring.

Furthermore, research has shown that the two hemispheres of the brain are the same size in homosexual men, just as they are in heterosexual women. Meanwhile, the brains of lesbians and heterosexual men have slightly larger right hemispheres.

It’s biology, baby, and yet rampant discrimination persists, even, and unthinkable to me, among some parents.

My friends Brian and David were 21 and 24 when they began dating. In the 16 years since, both have developed successful careers in the restaurant industry and accounting, respectively. They own their home and are wonderful neighbors and friends to many. They also give to the community, volunteering with nonprofits.

At Akron’s first New Year’s Eve Pride Ball last December, this wonderful couple was married by Judge Ron Cable. Set in the Akron Civic Theatre, with all its glorious Spanish-Italian Baroque architecture, the ceremony was perfect. With one exception: Though they love David and send him Christmas gifts each year, Brian’s parents refused to attend, tacitly rejecting the legitimacy of the couple’s bond. While he was not entirely surprised, his parents’ rejection of his committed, loving relationship cut Brian to the quick.

On Facebook, I have connected with many families who have children with Down syndrome, finding support, suggestions and camaraderie. But sharing one experience is no guarantee of other commonalities.

In 2016, California adopted an act that, in part, requires health education between grades seven and 12 to include a section on LGBTQ facts and issues. On a closed Facebook group, several mothers of children with DS expressed anger over the law, often writing, “This should only be taught at home by parents!”

These same mothers rally behind laws requiring accurate information be given to parents at the time of a Down syndrome diagnosis. And they would be thrilled if public schools were required to explain the biology of Down syndrome and how it affects a person. For that would foster acceptance of our children who are “Born This Way,” as the title of a successful reality TV show on DS puts it.

I pushed back, pointing out that many families will not choose to teach their children about LGBTQ issues, only to find that this was an acceptable outcome to the moms who opposed the California act. I reminded them that the best way to fight discrimination is to inform people.

After a few more times back and forth, one mother finally said it: “But homosexuality is a sin.”

Throughout history, including in some countries today, the birth of a child with Down syndrome has been viewed as evidence of parental sins. Not only ignorant, such beliefs have brought unfathomable harm to people with DS.

LGBTQ people are born the way they are born, too. The 25 percent of black swans and hundreds of other species that engage in homosexual activity are not sinning. They have no religion; thus, if life was created by God, clearly homosexuality was always part of the plan.

Perhaps I was excessive in checking with my older sons regarding their sexual orientation. It’s now a family joke. But better to err on the side of openness, to create a loving atmosphere in which anything can be discussed without fear of judgment, let alone rejection, than to let a child suffer in silence.

My friend said part of him died with his granddaughter. “I wish she’d talked to me. These kids need to know it’s OK to be whoever they are. [She] was perfect. She just didn’t know it.”

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Social contracts of last century brought prosperity and need reimplemented

My eldest son, Claude, graduated from Michigan in 2016. This fall, his younger brother Jules will matriculate at OSU. Both boys chose their respective universities for the same reason: money.

After grants, scholarships and $5,500 a year in loans, Jules will pay $1,500 out of pocket each year, easily raised with summer employment. Graduating today with $22,000 of debt for a four-year degree is remarkably low. That should not be the case.

After World War II, Congress created the G.I. Bill so returning soldiers could affordably attend college. According the Veteran Affairs website, “Some questioned the concept of sending battle-hardened veterans to colleges and universities, a privilege then reserved for the rich.”

Within a decade, the G.I. Bill, along with other federal and state financial support for all low- to middle-income college students, produced the largest growth of the middle class in American history, becoming a model for other countries.

Two generations later, a study revealed that college graduates, over the course of a lifetime, earned, on average, $1 million more than those without a degree. The Reagan administration used this information to cut yet another “entitlement program.”

And so began the breakdown of the social contract to support higher education for all. It was not the only social contract our society abnegated.

In 1970, free-market economist Milton Friedman published an article in Time magazine asserting that employers had no obligation to their employees, the environment or anything but profit, pure and simple. Managers should not foster corporate social responsibility, but strictly work as agents of shareholders.

Recently, two Harvard Business School professors argued that Friedman’s theory is “rife with moral hazard.” They believe that the “costs of prioritizing shareholders’ interests are borne by the company, and by society as a whole, which is robbed of innovations, jobs, and tax revenue.”

The nearly complete destruction of these two social contracts has contributed mightily to the greatest disparity of income in the United States since the laissez-faire economy of the decades before and after 1900.

The Plain Dealer reported last month that the past presidents at the University of Akron collectively receive $932,517 annually. The most recent, Matthew Wilson, resigned July 31 and will leave UA to become president of a university in Missouri this fall. For the year in between his resignation and his departure, he was compensated $240,500 for which he taught one three-credit-hour class last fall and two this past spring. For comparison, the current dean of the law school earns $278,100 annually.

Sure, on paper he has a job, but it is a wide-open “secret” that Luis Proenza, who was president from 1999-2014, does little to justify his $334,750 annual compensation. Proenza was responsible for an overly ambitious building campaign — rubber-stamped by the board of trustees — that decimated the university’s finances.

After he stepped down, the same board of trustees that allowed Proenza to overextend the university replaced him with Scott Scarborough. Scarborough whacked away at popular and financially sustainable programs, making matters worse, not better. Donors stopped contributing, and enrollment disastrously declined.

Scarborough’s lack of business acumen, among myriad issues of his tenure, should have resulted in him being fired outright. Instead, he was given a golden parachute. Scarborough collects $298,267 annually to teach a few accounting courses, when clearly he cannot manage numbers out of a paper bag.

Meanwhile, as with many universities across the country, full-time faculty at UA have largely been replaced with adjunct faculty, like me. As an adjunct, I receive no benefits, save for retirement contributions into the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System.

I receive $2,000 for each three-credit-hour course I teach, which is 140 minutes of class time per week. That works out to roughly $37 an hour, assuming I only work in the classroom.

However, as any good teacher knows, that is never the case. I prepare lectures using PowerPoint presentations and seek topical readings to illustrate my lessons. I grade papers giving feedback on content and the rules of writing American English using the “MLA Handbook.”

Any student who wants me to line-edit their papers can meet with me. Other students, many of whom come from urban high schools, work next to me at a table in the library. (I tell students my office is wherever I am with my laptop.) I answer their questions and, hopefully, show them study skills they never obtained in high school.

By semester’s end, I make less than $3 an hour. I could do less, protecting my valuable time, but it is not the students’ fault that the system is rigged to load them with mountains of debt, little of which is spent on instruction. Also, there are few things that make my soul leap with joy like watching students improve.

According to a CNBC article, American CEOs today make 271 times more than the average worker. In 1978, when the breakdown in these social contracts was just beginning, the ratio was 30:1. The average worker has seen an 11.2% increase in income (adjusted for inflation) in the same time period, while CEOs have had a 937% increase.

I get it because I live it. Assuming I teach four classes in 2019 (I’d like far more), I’ll make 0.02% of what Proenza pockets. Teaching college is not something any warm body can do. I have three college degrees and 30 years of experience writing and teaching.

The fear of communism and the brutal realities of the Great Depression helped birth the mid-20th century social contracts of affordable college and corporate social responsibility. They were concurrent tides that lifted all boats, including those of the rich. And for a few decades after WWII, America upheld them.

What might reverse the current trajectory? Thus far, the Great Recession seems only to have spawned autocratic populism both here and abroad. The more these social contracts are diminished, so too are innovation, economic equality and the very health of the planet.

Go Bucks? Go Blue? What do sports rivalries matter when there’s so much more at stake?

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Ageism can steal elders who still have many insights to share

I took maternity leave a week before Lyra’s due date. Since her elder brothers had arrived 10 to 14 days late, I figured I had at least a couple of weeks to nest (read: organize every closet and cupboard in the house) before descending into the chaos that accompanies a newborn.

The Saturday after my last day at work, Max took his Uncle Bascom to dinner for his birthday. Twelve-year-old Jules and I watched the documentary “Microcosmos” on the couch. A visually luscious film about insects, it lacks narration. Jules took up the slack and told me all about the creatures on the screen as I ignored my tensing womb.

“I’m in labor,” I told Max when he returned home late that evening. Lyra was born the following afternoon. Bascom cites the proximity of their birthdays, Aug. 13 and 14, as the reason he gives Lyra larger birthday checks than any of our other children.

If you didn’t know when you were born, how old would you believe yourself to be?

Bascom and Holly at the Cleveland Orchestra, winter 2019

Bascom was born in 1922 and Lyra was born in 2012. I think of them as the same age save 90. When she turned 1, he turned 91. Most who meet Bascom, however, take him for someone born in perhaps 1942.

One December, we brought the Firestone Madrigal Choir to Bascom’s home. He listened to them sing while sitting cross-legged on his living room floor, his back straight as a plank. After years of practicing Zen meditation, he sits like a small mountain. Hugo’s choir mates refused to believe he was 93.

I’ve found most people who live well into their 80s or 90s and still have their wits enjoy sharing stories about their lives. I love this, but Bascom is different — he is also a writer. I meet him for lunch every other Friday and he often spends the intervening days thinking about our talks. At our following luncheon, he always asks insightful questions.

Born in Georgia, Bascom still has a soft Southern accent, though he hasn’t lived there in more than three-quarters of a century. His voice reminds me of Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who was featured in the Ken Burns documentary on that horrific and fundamental chapter of America’s story.

Bascom in WWII and in 2015

When he fought in the European theater in World War II, Bascom’s best friend was blown up beside him. Bascom carries bits of shrapnel in his body from that moment, for which he received the Purple Heart. In recent years, he has started talking about the war.

“What was his name, your friend in the war?” I asked him over lunch last fall.

“What? I haven’t spoken his name in years. He was Russell Moller, but I just called him Moller, because that’s what you do in the Army.”

Sometimes we laugh so hard, I’m afraid he’s going to aspirate his lunch. Other times we hold hands across the table and weep together. “What am I going to do when you are gone?” I’ve asked him, as he’s very frank about the reality of his age.

Thanks to his physician, I almost learned the answer to my question last month. For months, Bascom complained about reduced energy. His doctor told him not to worry about it, dismissing his concerns as age-related even though, as we later learned, his kidneys’ creatinine levels tested above normal last December.

The week before Easter, Bascom awoke on the floor, not sure how he’d gotten there. It took a few minutes for him to figure out he was in his kitchen. His doctor remained unworried and ran some blood tests. The friend who brought him in suggested that Bascom was dehydrated and needed IV fluids, to which the doctor responded, “Are you in a medical field?”

Bascom fell again the next day and was taken to the emergency room. He had an untreated urinary tract infection that had gone to his bladder and then to his kidneys. Goodness knows how long he’s been struggling with this, given his complaints and test results in December.

Easter Sunday, we did not meditate with the Buddhists, sing with the Christians nor read our three newspapers. Max and I spent the afternoon in the hospital with Bascom. He hates being a bother, but we reminded him that patients with regular visitors have better outcomes.

Ageism. Another nonagenarian, Roger Angell, has written a number of excellent essays in The New Yorker about how the elderly become invisible, their words unheard, their lives misunderstood by the young. Bascom, who subscribes to, and reads, The New Yorker and several other publications, tells me Angell’s essays resonate with him. Of course they do.

Behavior modeled provides the strongest imprint on all offspring. There are many wonderful people who work in nursing homes, but I also know that most people decline rapidly when placed in one. I’ve repeatedly asked my eldest son to promise not to put me in a nursing home.

Bascom is not the first elderly relative my children have seen their parents care for. As young adults, they help, too, by visiting him, running errands or taking care of their youngest siblings so we can help him. But beyond keeping our elders in their homes for as long as possible, my children also know to listen to, and enjoy the company of, their elders.

Our job now is to find Bascom a doctor who listens and takes his concerns seriously. He thankfully survived the war, previous medical events and this latest scare. We want him here as long as possible, for he still has many stories and insights to share with us.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 5, 2019

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Family’s tragedy shows need for sentencing reform, affordable childcare

The grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by order of his country’s de facto head of state, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, caused me and many other Americans to finally recognize the horrific genocide occurring in Yemen, also by bin Salman’s order.

One dramatic event can shed light on a greater, if not systemic, problem.

Here in Summit County, the sentencing of Wynter Parker’s parents for her accidental death is such an event. Her parents’ felony convictions and prison sentences will not bring Wynter back. Nor will they vindicate her tragic, but absolutely accidental death.

My last column responding to Tierra Williams’ and Dariaun Parker’s prison sentences generated more responses from readers than any other column by fourfold. More than half of them wrote “There but for the grace of God go I” letters like this one:

“I once returned home from a doctor’s appointment to find my naked toddler walking down the street. My son, who is now 54, had unlocked the door and went on an adventure while his father, who had worked the third shift, sat sleeping in a chair. Had he intentionally abused or neglected his child? NO … though he did get quite a lecture, he was devastated. I pray the court will rethink their awful sentence and allow this family to reunite and gather their lives after their terrible loss.”

Many readers saw institutionalized misogyny in the charges and sentencing. Like me, they surmise that if the situation had been reversed — had the mother been home when Wynter slipped outside, and the father had returned from errands and then done everything he could to save his child — the father would not have been charged.

And many readers saw institutionalized racism, as do I. I don’t believe that if my daughter wandered outside and died of hypothermia, my husband and I would ever be charged with a crime, because we are white, middle-class professionals.

It is tempting to vilify Judge Alison McCarty for her egregious sentence and finger-wagging, telling the parents, “That’s an untenable situation,” referring to Williams driving to clients’ homes to style their hair while Parker worked on a musical career for which he had yet to earn income. “Not a lack of love, a lack of attention. Not all of the time, but some of the time, which put both of the children at risk.”

Untenable is what America expects of its working poor. On the same day my last column was published, the New York Times ran a piece by Katha Pollitt, who believes universal affordable day care would create more economic mobility than universal free college tuition. The Economic Policy Institute’s recent state-by-state analysis of the annual cost for infant care found it is often comparable to, if not more expensive than, annual tuition at a state college.

Pollitt states that parents “on tight budgets may be forced to seek informal, cheaper care. A neighbor … might be a godsend — or she might just plunk her little charges in front of the TV, take too many children or not know how to handle an emergency.”

Last Sunday, Catherine Rampell’s column in this paper pointed out that women’s issues are economic issues, including affordable child care. However, “policies that affect mothers’ ability to work are too often framed as being mainly about fairness, feminism, personal fulfillment and family bonding.”

Wynter Parker’s parents, like all working poor and middle-class families, could use policies that extend fairness and family bonding while also making good economic sense.

Finding a job

Also untenable is a legal system that makes gainful employment for working poor families nigh impossible. Thanks to the folks at Community Legal Aid and the University of Akron Law School’s Reentry Clinic, I’ve learned much about felony convictions in the past two weeks.

Felony convictions substantially limit opportunities for employment after release. As one reader wrote, “I was in retail management for years. When looking at applications, the minute our eyes went to ‘felony conviction’ the app went in the dead file.”

Williams and Parker first pleaded not guilty to the charge of child endangerment, a third-degree felony. That seems reasonable, as Wynter’s death was accidental. But before sentencing, they switched to guilty pleas, presumably on the advice of their attorneys.

A person with a felony conviction for child endangerment is legally ineligible to work in 616 types of employment in Ohio. Some convictions are eligible to be expunged, or to have the records sealed a year after the sentence has been served. But not child endangerment.

The prosecutors, knowing the lifelong effects, sought a felony conviction not only for the father who was with the child when she wandered, but also for the mother who was not, and who did everything possible to rescue her daughter when she found her.

Effectively, the felony conviction of Wynter Parker’s parents has probably sentenced her two siblings to childhood poverty.

Williams and Parker could have been convicted but not sentenced to prison. That they were likely gave Wynter’s siblings additional life sentences of poverty. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “two factors influenced by parental incarceration — family income and children’s educational outcomes — have direct implications for children’s future upward economic mobility. The growth of incarceration in America has intergenerational impacts that policy makers will have to confront.”

Plight of the poor

Last Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pastor Jon Hauerwas reminded congregants that, “Jesus was a poor man. He was one of them. And so, he spoke empathetically about the plight of the poor.” The prayer of confession that day included, “We have not stood by those who are hated, bullied or excluded. Comfortable with the way things are, we are too complacent, even complicit with injustice and prejudice.”

In response to American outrage at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Congress is now reconsidering America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as it relates to Yemen.

For those who are outraged by the sentences given to Williams and Parker, I encourage you to no longer be complacent, lest you be complicit in unjust sentencing of life in poverty and limited opportunities, not just for this family, but any family who tragically loses a child to an accidental death.

We as a society can support families rather than seeking a pound of flesh. In some cases, Children Services may need to supervise after an accidental death, until it believes affected families are appropriately able to care for their remaining children.

We can seek sentencing reform. I petition my state representative, Emilia Sykes, and my state senator, Vernon Sykes, to craft legislation that would limit, if not eliminate, felony charges for the accidental deaths of children. Rather than seeking retribution, guidelines should be crafted outlining appropriate measures to take, and services to provide, when a family loses a child due to an accidental death.

And we can advocate for affordable, quality child care, so poor parents have the support they need to lead productive lives, which has the potential to lift them and their children out of poverty.

As for Williams and Parker, they can petition Gov. Mike DeWine for clemency, and I strongly hope Williams does. Beyond that, a year after they complete their full sentences, including parole, each can apply to the county courts for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE). In theory, if granted, this certificate would prove to potential employers that the parties have been fully rehabilitated and should be considered for employment.

Lyra attempting to escape, yet again, last week.

To find your state legislators, go to Write to them for change and you’ll feel better than you have since learning of Williams’ and Parker’s convictions and sentences.

Question: Why do amusement parks, fairs, even some shopping malls have “Lost Child Centers,” essentially child recovery offices?

Answer: Because in the blink of an eye, any child can and often will wander out of sight.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Prison sentence for child’s accidental death benefits no one

My daughter, Lyra, has become a runner. I don’t mean she’s racing fellow kindergartners in track, but like with many children with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, she takes off with no regard to safety or even a destination.

I have written about her running and all that we’ve done to keep her safe, from making our doors impossible for her to open to strapping a GPS monitor belt on her that lets us know if she’s left our property.

Thanks to neighbors, strangers and the Akron police, Lyra has returned home safely each time she has run. But what if, God forbid, she was struck by a motor vehicle? Or wandered to a nearby pond and drowned? What crime would her father, Max, and I have committed?

Years ago, when a friend of mine was in medical school, she dropped off her two older children at preschool before driving her baby to daycare. When she arrived at the daycare facility, she discovered the baby was not in her car.

My friend, who went on to receive an M.D.-PhD., is very smart and extremely competent. But raising three small children while attending medical school was demanding, if not overwhelming. My friend had no idea where her baby could be that day. Had she left her in her car seat in the parking lot at the preschool?

Trembling, she returned to the preschool. She found the baby asleep in her car seat on the floor of the preschool classroom, a fortress of cardboard bricks built around her by the young pupils.

One winter’s evening, a friend of mine who is an artist put his 3-year-old daughter to bed before returning to his studio to work. While the studio was attached to the house, it also had an exterior door used by customers.

Much later that evening, my friend was shocked when someone knocked at the door. He opened it, and there was his little daughter in her nightgown and boots. No coat, hat or mittens. She’d taken herself to the swing set, played and then toddled to the studio door when she became very cold.

But what if my friend hadn’t gone to the studio that night? What if he’d gone to bed and hadn’t heard his child knocking? She would certainly have died before morning. What would have been his crime?

On Feb. 2, 2018, 2-year-old Wynter Parker wandered outside on a day when the temperature didn’t reach above 19 degrees. She had been at home with her father, Dariaun Parker, then 23, who had been up all night recording music. Sleep deprived, perhaps he nodded off because it was Wynter’s mother, Tierra Williams, who found her.

Williams, who was then 22, had been running errands with the couple’s 4-year-old child. When she returned home and found her daughter outside, she immediately wrapped the girl in blankets and called 911. Tragically, Wynter died from the effects of severe hypothermia.

In articles, including in this paper, county prosecutors state that neighbors called the police before because the couple’s children were outside unattended. But the authorities did not report the family to Summit County Children Services, which they are required to do when they believe children are endangered. Lyra has run three times, and the police have been called each time. Children outside unattended is not a crime nor, in all instances, necessarily negligence.

There are parents who brutally beat their children and some who murder their own babies, or murder the children of romantic partners. Those people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and prevented from ever harming a child again.

But what of a mother who leaves her daughter with the child’s tired father? Or the tired father who agrees to stay with the child? And that one time everything goes completely wrong and the child dies not because of any malicious intent on the part of either parent?

More than 36 children die each year in the U.S. from vehicular hyperthermia, or heat stroke, because a caregiver leaves them in a car on a hot day. Compared to a child who wanders away, the parent who leaves a child in a car is an active agent in the child’s death. It’s the parent who buckles a child into a car seat and then forgets to retrieve them.

The worst punishment a parent can suffer is the death of a child. Perhaps that is why the judge overseeing the case of a 6-month-old’s death last summer in Medina from vehicular hyperthermia sentenced the baby’s father, 22-year-old Christopher Lee Stewart, to two years of probation. Stewart did not intend to harm his child. That she died due to his actions will likely haunt him all his days.

Dariaun Parker and Tierra Williams, however, have been sent to prison for their daughter’s death. Two years for Parker and 18 months for Williams, neither of whom had a criminal record, nor, as far as any news reports reveal, did they have any reported history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Judge Alison McCarty, who sentenced the parents, told them she would consider granting them an early release, which they can request after serving 30 days because they received sentences of less than two years. The decision on whether to grant the early release will be up to McCarty.

There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t had a heart-clutching moment when realizing if a situation had gone even a little differently, great harm would have resulted. My daughter who runs, my friend who couldn’t remember where she’d left her baby, my other friend whose daughter wandered outside on a winter night. And many more stories of my own and others.

Should Williams and Parker have received supervision from Children Services after Wynter’s death? Absolutely. But how does sending them to prison benefit society? We live in a country that does not believe in free, quality childcare for our working poor but now we will pay a total of three and a half years of prison costs, approximately $30,000 a year.

As for punishment, their daughter died.

And what crime did the couple’s other two children commit? For they, too, are being punished. According to Creasie Finney Hairston, professor and dean at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, “The arrest and removal of a mother or father from a child’s life forces that child to confront emotional, social and economic consequences that may trigger behavior problems, poor outcomes in school and a disruption or severance of the relationship with the incarcerated parent that may persist even after the parent is released from prison.”

Judge McCarty didn’t have enough compassion for the remaining children to at least sentence the parents consecutively rather than concurrently.

So I ask, what crime did these parents commit that merits the additional destruction of their lives and the lives of their other children, not to mention the expense to the state, by incarceration?

This column will appear in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 10, 2018.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Raising a family of voters

Put me in charge of everything and I’d immediately mandate compulsory voting. In the 26 countries with compulsory voting, not only is turnout high (even when enforcement is weak), but a wider demographic of the electorate is politically informed.

For better or worse, I am not in charge of everything. I am, however, in charge of my children’s upbringing. While there are many dedicated nonprofits working tirelessly to register and turn out eligible young voters, nothing has more power than what is modeled at home.

My own parents voted regularly — my mother and her husband casting votes to the right of the John Birch Society while my father, at least once, voted for Comrade Gus Hall for president. My stepmom remains politically active and is currently precinct captain for the Democrats in her county.

When my boys were little, I took them with me to my polling station so they could see voting in action and become familiarized with how it works. But I didn’t stop there.

In 2003, when we moved to Akron, I packed up the boys, then ages 9, 6 and 3, and drove to Columbus. We met with our then-state senator, Kimberly Zurz. We also met with the legislative aide of our congresswoman, Barbara Sykes.

Intimate with the positions of their bosses, legislative aides allow politicians to be responsive to their constituents in a way no single person could do. Never refer to them as “just legislative aides” because the work of these public servants is invaluable to good governance.

In the fall of 2004, the boys and I spent several Saturdays in multiple Akron neighborhoods dropping leaflets for the Democrats. We also housed volunteers who came to Ohio from other states, including Oliver Moles, a man in his 70s from D.C. Moles grew up on Rhodes Avenue in Akron and for weeks the boys listened to dinner conversations either about politics or midcentury Akron.

In 2008, Akron Public Schools were closed, as is often the case, on the day of the November election. At the time, 11-year-old Hugo was the only one of my children who had the day off. Claude was at Akron Early College High School, which follows the University of Akron’s schedule, and Jules was at a private school. I worked in Youngstown.

Home alone, what did Hugo do? He walked to the nearby Obama campaign headquarters and asked if he could volunteer. They gave him a stack of posters to roll up. When Hugo told me what he had done, I could not have been more proud.

When they were in high school, the boys helped me canvas, seeking out registered voters at their homes to get out the vote. First-time canvassers are understandably nervous about knocking on strangers’ doors.

The day of the 2012 presidential election, 17-year-old Hugo went with me for a few blocks before I gave him his own list. With 3-month-old Lyra strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, doors opened easily for me. “Get in here with that baby!” more than one woman told me.

But a young man all alone? Hugo was sure he’d be met with suspicion, but when we reconvened, he was bouncing on his toes with delight. He’d had several engaging conversations and felt he’d made a difference.

When my children turned 18, I make a big deal about voter registration. With Claude and Hugo, who have winter birthdays, I pulled them out of school to visit the Summit County Board of Elections. Once registered, we went out for lunch before returning to school.

The first year Claude attended the University of Michigan, he mailed in an absentee ballot. Then in 2015, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted threw out absentee ballots that were not postmarked, even though the U.S. Postal Service cannot guarantee all mail will receive a postmark. Almost 900 mail-in ballots in Summit County were thrown out in that year’s November election.

Not only do I want every adult citizen to vote, but I also expect their legally cast votes to be counted. Since the presidential election in 2000, voter suppression, which had lain mostly dormant since the Civil Rights Movement’s successes in the 1960s, has raised its reinvigorated head across the country.

Waiting for our ballots at the Summit Co. Board of Elections

Jules turned 18 last June and rather than make a fuss over his registration, his brothers and I waited until his first election. After a delayed bus trip from Rochester and an Uber ride from Cleveland, Hugo arrived in Akron at 2 a.m. on the second Friday of early voting. Claude, who has been a weekend canvassing captain this fall, took the afternoon off from work. At home, the four of us again reviewed the ballot issues before driving to the board of elections.

“You didn’t ask us if we would come home to vote, you ordered us to,” laughed Hugo when I told them I’d let my college students know about our family voting early and in person for several years now.

Hugo’s correct; after Husted purged so many absentee ballots, I did tell them we could not trust the system unless we showed up in person. I told them to come home from college to vote. But I also didn’t “ask” Hugo to power wash the garage, help Leif put up Halloween decorations and polish a pair of my boots while he was home. And from that list of things I told him to do, he did zero.

But Hugo went out of his way to vote in person. For my kids, it’s second nature, and I don’t doubt they will be active citizens their entire lives.

It’s never too late to start participating in our democracy. If you’ve never voted, I encourage you to register and to support measures that make voting easier, not harder. The Summit County Board of Elections is open daily for early voting, including from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday. Go vote!

Christensen Early Voter Brigade Oct. 19, 2018

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 4, 2018.

Civil Rights · Lyra's Latests

A few words about Down syndrome

With our daughter Lyra’s birth, we learned, among many things, the importance of language when discussing her diagnosis.

In my lifetime, using the word “retarded” to describe a person with Down syndrome has become entirely unacceptable. I understood this perhaps as early as the 1970s. However, I still used the word to describe nonhuman things that might frustrate me from computers to proposed legislation.

I had to work at it, but I have completely scrubbed the r-word out of my vocabulary. Why? Because it has become a put-down in all contexts with the original referent being people with Down syndrome. Though the word was never ideal, it was once commonly used, including by the very organizations that support people with DS.

The Arc is one of the oldest of these organizations. Until 1992 it was known as “ARC,” an acronym for “Association for Retarded Citizens.” Their website includes a thoughtful explanation of why the name was changed, and that today the only r-word to use when referring to people with intellectual disabilities is “Respect.”

Here in Ohio, each county had a “mental retardation and developmental disability” (MRDD) board until 2009 when they were all retitled “developmental disability” (DD) boards.

When Lyra was 2 years old, I reread an essay I had written soon after her birth. While waiting several days for Lyra’s chromosomes to be analyzed, I wanted her diagnosis to be mosaic Down syndrome, in which not all cells have a third 21st chromosome. Why? Because in those first days after an unexpected diagnosis, I hoped for Lyra to have “milder symptoms,” as though Down syndrome were an illness.

“Milder symptoms” is a legacy of the terms “mildly retarded” or “severely retarded.” Even today, books and articles concerning pregnancy and childbirth still sometimes use the language of illness, such as this example from a parenting website: “While everyone wishes for a healthy baby, you may have one with Down syndrome.” (Disability rights activists petitioned the publication and the language was eventually changed.)

Lyra, thankfully, is a robustly healthy child. While some children with Down syndrome have other health issues, to confuse a diagnosis of DS with poor health is as incorrect as confusing deafness or blindness as poor health.

Lyra is just a kid, not a “Down’s kid.”

Also important to all people living with any diagnosis is people-first language. Lyra is not a Down syndrome girl, she’s a 6-year-old girl, a kindergartner, a sister to her four brothers, and a lover of music, books, playgrounds and cats. The British cartoon “Peppa Pig” is Lyra’s favorite show, from which she’s learned to pronounce several words in the Queen’s English including “luh-vley” for “lovely.”

And Lyra has Down syndrome. She’s not a Down’s kid, she’s a kid. Just as any person with any diagnosis is a person, not a diagnosis.

Yet the first months of Lyra’s life, I stopped myself multiple times as the words “Down syndrome child” slipped past my lips. People-first language is so easy to understand. However, it took time for me to consistently apply a simple turn of a phrase that identified my daughter as a person, not as her diagnosis.

“They are all so sweet, people with Down syndrome.” I’ve heard this many times, particularly in the months after Lyra’s birth. While it is statistically true that higher percentages of people with Down syndrome claim being happy with their lives than the typical population, calling them “all so sweet” is a stereotype that denies the full range of human emotions in someone with DS.

And what can happen when someone does not behave in accordance with the stereotype ascribed by society? In January 2013, Ethan Saylor, 26, was killed when he did not behave like a sweet man with Down syndrome.

While his caretaker had stepped out to retrieve her car, Saylor, an ardent fan of law enforcement and the military, slipped back into the movie theater where he’d just seen “Zero Dark Thirty.” Because he’d not bought a second ticket, the theater manager alerted security officers, all off-duty sheriff’s deputies. Saylor’s caretaker returned just as the deputies arrived and warned them not to touch him because it would cause him to “freak out.”

Rather than listen to the person who knew him, the deputies dragged Saylor down to the side of the movie screen, just out of the sight of the audience. Because of his failure to buy a $12 ticket, Saylor was wrestled to the ground, his larynx was fractured and he died of asphyxiation. Rather than watching the movie, the audience listened to Saylor cry for his mommy in his last moments of life.

Until I was 46, I gave the disability rights movement little thought. Since Lyra’s birth, however, I think every day about the need for acceptance and inclusion of all people with disabilities in all facets of life. This includes medical care, education, employment, housing and relationships. It also includes freedom from harassment both in public and at home.

Acceptance is born from understanding and understanding is best gained by exposure. That is why October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month — to introduce our communities to our loved ones with DS, who are often their own best advocates, and to dispel misinformation about what a DS diagnosis means.

Words matter. Choose yours with empathy. And when someone uses outmoded or inappropriate language, consider their intent. If someone is using the only language they’ve known to discuss Down syndrome, but they are doing so kindly, I welcome it as a teachable moment. For I, too, have had a long history of needing important matters, including the language of disability, pointed out to me.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 21, 2018.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Those who sexually assault women do not consider them fully human

Earlier this semester, students in my English composition classes at the University of Akron read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”Written in 1729, Swift’s satirical solution to rampant poverty in Ireland was for English overlords to buy and eat 1-year-old Irish babies.

Swift compares the Irish to livestock, which is to say, less than human. My students and I discussed other groups of people who’ve been considered less than human, and to what end. Africans in order to justify slavery. Jews, Roma, Scinti, homosexuals and the intellectually disabled in order to justify genocide. Latino immigrants to justify tearing children away from their parents.

Then there are women. In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “In surveys, when men are asked whether they have ever had sex with a woman or girl without her consent, a surprising number cheerfully say they have, without considering themselves rapists. They simply perceive themselves as fun-loving guys in a hunting game in which a ‘no’ can be vitiated with alcohol and muscular assertiveness; they leave smirking and the women leave traumatized.”

Politics aside, the twists and turns in the current Supreme Court confirmation saga are generating important conversations. My son Hugo called me from school the day after the hearings of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh to discuss what happened. Friends with daughters are sitting them down to talk about sexual assault, underscoring that should they, God forbid, ever be assaulted, to please tell their parents immediately.

I was 25 when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings regarding Anita Hill’s allegations of workplace sexual harassment by her boss, Clarence Thomas. In a nationally televised, live broadcast, I saw a courageous young woman harassed yet again. I quickly realized the men I once viewed as elder statesmen were little different than schoolyard bullies.

The Kavanaugh proceedings were reminiscent of those from 1991. Like other women my age and older, I wonder what, if any, progress has been made in the ensuing 27 years.

The same year Dr. Blasey alleges Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, I was invited to a party at the summer house of a wealthy young man in northern Michigan. His father owned, among many businesses, a ship that served dinner each night on Lake Michigan. Many of the ship’s waiters were college mates of the son, and their home was, for a few months, a de facto frat house.

Shortly after I arrived, a group of men passed me, two of them holding a semi-conscious woman upright as they dragged her to another room. She wore a sweatshirt, but no pants. Using permanent marker, her rapists, for that’s what they were, had graffitied her legs with words like “slut” and “whore” and images of male genitalia. I knew the woman. We were both rising seniors in the same high school.

I wish I could write I stopped the men and found a way to take my classmate home. But in my ignorance, formed by societal norms and reinforced throughout my childhood, I wondered why she let those guys do that to her. I left as soon as I could and never returned.

This past summer at the University of Rochester, where Hugo is a senior, all seven fraternity houses were vandalized. Two female students spray-painted the words “I Was Raped Here” on the front of each house. The women had been raped at two of the houses and they knew, firsthand, women who were sexually assaulted in each of the others.

Earlier this year, I listened to an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain.” Titled “Why Now,” the piece asks why the #MeToo movement exploded last year, bringing down several powerful men, many of whom had been accused of sexual assault for years, even decades.

The podcast describes how “preference falsification” can explain why women often choose not to report. It’s because they’ve witnessed what happens to women who have. At best, they are ignored, their allegations dismissed. At worst, as alleged of Harvey Weinstein, powerful men can destroy their victims’ careers, devastating lives they’ve already traumatized.

Women weigh the benefit versus the cost of coming forward with allegations of sexual assault. Both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford recounted anguishing at length with their decisions. All too often, women accurately determine the costs outweigh the benefits, leaving perpetrators free to assault again.

But in the era of #MeToo, the preference falsification has begun to reverse. “The social proof has changed,” says the host of “Hidden Brain.” Society, for this moment, has switched the burden of proof from the victim to the accused. The current Supreme Court confirmation process seems a test of whether this reversal will continue.

As with all difficult issues, the two most powerful tools of parents are modeling and talking. Ideally, all children would grow up in families where both parents respect one another. For children who do not, the examples of other families — those of their friends, relatives, and even acquaintances — can provide a vital counterpoint.

But even when parents do respect one another, it is still important they talk to their children, to cultivate relationships where children are comfortable bringing home difficult questions and discussions.

Tell your underage daughters and sons to avoid parties with alcohol, and to be hyper-cautious when attending them after turning 21.

Tell your sons no means no, even when first told yes.

Tell your daughters it is never OK — no matter what she wears, how much she drinks or any other variable — for a man to touch her body without her explicit consent. Neither is it OK for anyone to discuss sexual matters, either in earnest or jest, without her explicit consent.

“Boys will be boys” and “It’s just locker-room talk” are code phrases that trivialize and dehumanize women in order to justify sexual assault. Feminism is the radical notion that women are fully human. It seems obvious, but the endless stories of sexual assault indicate we have a long way to go before the full humanity of women is accepted as a universal truth.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 7, 2018.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Predators

One of my favorite books by Richard Scarry is The Bunny Book. In it, family members of a baby bunny wonder what he will be when he grows up. Cowboy? Firefighter? Doctor? Farmer?

No, none of these. What baby bunny wants to be when he grows up is a daddy bunny who cares for his children. Rather avant-garde kid lit when first published in 1955, The Bunny Book is as relevant today as ever.

When my eldest son, Claude, was in kindergarten, I read The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein. A therapist, teacher and mother, Silverstein argued against the belief that mothers need to let go of their sons and that boys must avoid emotions associated with women.

We all know the clichés: Stop coddling that boy. Big boys don’t cry. Mama’s boy. Feminization of men is destroying the nation.

However, after working as a family therapist for more than three decades, the most common marital problem Silverstein saw was men who were emotionally disconnected. She determined that not nurturing the emotions of sons results in “lost boys, lonely men, lousy marriages, midlife crises.”

And, I would add, an increase in the dehumanization of women. If a man is emotionally disconnected, he cannot empathize with the feelings of others. Couple this with the vigorous patriarchy of our society and too often women become little more than objects, conquests to be taken either by charm or force, then discarded like a used napkin.

Anyone who’s been conscious this past month has heard about movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexually assaulting women. Also hard to miss has been the #MeToo campaign in which women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted are posting these two words on their social media accounts.

Men in powerful positions preying on women and getting away with it for years is a scandal that repeats all too regularly. And the sad truth is for every Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby or Bill O’Reilly, there are thousands of other predators who are never stopped.

Protecting daughters

My only daughter has Down syndrome. The rates of sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities, both men and women, are higher than for the general population. My plans to protect Lyra are the same as they would be for a daughter who did not have Down syndrome: talk openly with her about sexuality, what is appropriate, what is not and how to protect herself from sexual harassment and assault.

Yet until there is a wholesale change in how our culture views women and the men who violate them, I will worry for my daughter’s safety. As most any parent of any daughter does. It’s a second #MeToo that walks hand-in-hand with the first.

I have four sons who believe women are fully human, which makes them feminists. I recently asked the three big boys why they treat women as their equals, and why they disparage men who do not. What was it in their upbringing to make them different from the predators we hear about in the news and, horrifyingly, some of my sons’ peers?

Their answer? Nothing and everything.

Nothing in that there is no single thing I did or said that made my sons respect women as their equals. Sure, I’ve given them all the “No means no, even if first she said yes” talk. But that alone did not form their feminist beliefs.

“Because you’re our mom,” said 20-year-old Hugo, “that’s everything.”

Lyra and Leif play with the fairy outfits they both received in their Easter baskets this past spring.

My children were never forced into rigid gender roles. They had some superhero pajamas but others patterned with fish, stars or gnomes. When Claude was 3, he wanted to dress up as a witch for Halloween. Rather than tell him only girls can be witches, I bought him a pointy hat, a small broom and a wand.

My boys played with Brio trains and Matchbox cars, but they also had stuffed animals and, yes, dolls. For boys, just like girls, may one day grow up to be parents.

As for girls, Hugo also pointed out that all three of my big boys have maintained friendships with girls starting in toddlerhood. While many boys and girls start to self-segregate by gender around the fourth grade, my boys did not.

Claude’s best friend for years was a girl he met in the first grade. At Miller South School for the Arts, Hugo studied art and musical performance, concentrations with more girls than boys. As for Jules, who looked like a girl until he cut his long blonde hair at age 12, he is drawn to people who are thoughtful, curious and nonaggressive. Some are men, more are women.

Guiding sons

Letting boys be fully emotional when they are little should be easy. Don’t shame them for crying when hurt or for telling you when they are scared. I hug my boys and tell them I love them every time we part. As adults, they do the same not only with Max and me but also with each other.

Many adults find emotional teens difficult. They are physically big and verbally articulate. It’s hard to always remember with a teenager that there are no wrong emotions; emotions just are, and need acknowledgment. Even if the teen is telling you what an awful parent and person you are. My advice? Buck up and lean in.

One day when Claude was 15, we were driving with his brothers and Max to a swimming spot in the Chagrin River. Claude didn’t want to go and refused to speak.

“Claude won’t talk because he’s mad I made him come with us,” I said after a question from Max had been met with stony silence.

Still looking out the car window, Claude said, “Shut up,” then paused before saying, “you bitch.”

I told Max to pull the car over. He parked and I told Claude to give me his cellphone and get out of the car. Two hours later when we returned to Max’s locked-up house, we found Claude, drained of both anger and energy, drinking from the hose in the backyard.

At the time, I was two years into my 39-month divorce. Divorce is hard for kids. Claude, who was angry with his father in general, felt guilty when he was angry with me over everyday stuff and held it in.

“Look,” I told him, “you are allowed to be angry with me; I can take it. Don’t bottle it up until it explodes and then you say things to me that you will never, ever say to me again, understand?” We talked for over an hour in Max’s basement that afternoon.

Two days later, as I drove us home from a school event, Claude spoke of his deeper fears and emotions. It was dark when I parked in our driveway where he and I stayed and continued talking for two more hours.

The manliness of my sons is in no way diminished for their emotional connectedness. It is enhanced, as they are able to be fully present for women, men and themselves.

If, as a society, we are ever going to make significant progress toward ending the pervasiveness of men harassing and assaulting women, it will be when more families have the courage to raise men with the full range of emotions, not just anger and a sense of entitlement.

This essay was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 5, 2017.

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