On Our Best Days, We Elect Them Homecoming Queen

Al Franken, Muna Abdulahi, and the potential expansiveness of American identity

RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE
US Sen. Al Franken is shown June 5, 2016 at the Willmar Senior High School graduation of Muna Abdulahi. Rand Middleton/Tribune file photo. Original here.

Tuesday night, while driving home from a not-very-good public talk about artificial intelligence, radio station KQED was rebroadcasting a City Arts & Lectures interview with Senator Al Franken. It touched us, serving as a reminder of the face-to-face decency our country is sometimes capable of achieving. We’re sharing it for that reason: as a hopeful anecdote.

City Arts doesn’t archive its audio, so we’re relying on an excerpt from Franken’s new memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, to share the story with you. Here it is, with Franken narrating in the first person:

Two days before the 2016 election, Donald Trump landed his gaudy plane at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport, making his first public appearance in our state just in time to spread his trademark blend of hate, fear, and ignorance—this time targeting our Somali-Minnesotan community.

Somalis started coming to America in large numbers during a civil war in the early 1990s. Many families had spent years in refugee camps in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. About fifty thousand Somali refugees now live in Minnesota—many of them in the Twin Cities, but not all. Many smaller cities and communities around the state have significant Somali populations.

At the time, Trump was attacking Hillary Clinton’s plan to admit sixty-five thousand refugees out of the millions of people fleeing Syria in the worst refugee crisis since World War II… He wasn’t talking about Syrian refugees. So far, Minnesota has admitted twenty-eight of them. He was talking about the Somalis who have been here for years, people who are an important part of our state’s fabric.

“Here in Minnesota you have seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state,” Trump told the rally. He was referring to an incident two months earlier in which a young Somali man wielding a knife had injured nine people at a shopping mall in St. Cloud before being killed by an off-duty cop. The assailant had come to America when he was four months old. Which makes it kind of hard to buy that the incident was a result of “faulty vetting.” …

“You’ve suffered enough,” [Trump] snarled, talking about the presence of Somali people in our communities.

That’s kind of how Trump’s entire campaign went. His arguments were rarely rooted in fact, but they frequently carried a tinge of racism and paranoia. And that’s what made it so upsetting when he won. How could that be what America chose? Is that really who we are? And if so, what’s the point of trying?

The truth, however, is that, at least in Minnesota, that’s not who we are.  

Where Donald Trump sees a state in which people suspect and resent their neighbors based on where they come from, I see a state where we look out for each other, because we believe that we’re all in this together. Trump might have found a clever way to channel the resentments of the white working class, and he sure does seem good at playing the media for fools, but he’s just plain wrong about what kind of people we are.

Willmar is an agricultural city of about twenty thousand in south-central Minnesota and the seat of Kandiyohi County, the largest turkey-producing county in the largest turkey-producing state in the nation. In June of last year, I took the unusual step of inviting myself to Willmar’s high school graduation. Not just for the free punch and cookies, but because I wanted to introduce the senior who had been voted by the graduating class to be their class speaker.

Her name was Muna Abdulahi, and she had been one of our Senate pages during her junior year. Her principal had recommended her to my office, and my staff told me that her essay and interview had been unbelievably impressive. So, the day the new class of pages arrived in the Senate, I went down to the floor to meet her in person.

Muna was easy to pick out of the group of thirty or so, being the only one wearing a hijab (headscarf) with her page uniform. I went up to her and said, “You look like a Minnesotan.”

Muna nodded and smiled. As we talked, I was struck by her poise and intelligence. A few weeks later, the ambassador from Somalia came to the Capitol to meet with a number of senators and members of Congress from states with large Somali communities. I invited Muna to come along so that the ambassador could meet her and see that a Somali Minnesotan was a Senate page.

The Class of 2016 at Willmar Senior High had 236 members. Perusing the list of graduates in the program, I estimated that about 60 percent were your garden-variety Scandinavian/German white Minnesotans, about 25 percent were Hispanic, and about 15 percent were Somali, with a few Asian Americans tossed in. The valedictorian, Maite Marin-Mera, had been born in Ecuador.

As the orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduates entered two by two, walking down the center aisle in their caps and gowns. Muna was up front, because “Abdulahi” was the first name alphabetically. She was holding hands with fellow senior Michelle Carlson, one of two Carlson twins to graduate that day.

The only way to tell Michelle and her twin sister, Mary, apart is that Mary has a slightly shorter haircut. Or maybe it’s Michelle. Otherwise, they’re identical—both are tall, both are brilliant (both graduated with highest honors), and both exude the same spirit of pure positivity and joy.

The whole day was like this. Maite gave a wonderful speech, and so did class president Tate Hovland (half Norwegian, half German), and both received enthusiastic ovations. I introduced Muna, who got a boisterous round of applause as she took the stage and a standing O when she finished.

When it came time to hand out diplomas, the crowd was told to hold their applause until the end. But they couldn’t help themselves. The moment Muna’s name was called, everyone erupted. Clapping, shouting, stomping on the bleachers—and it continued like that through each one of the 236 graduates. These kids loved each other.

The two hours I spent at that high school commencement were a tonic for the year of trash I’d been hearing about our country.  

Perhaps Donald Trump confused Minnesota with somewhere else. About a week after the election, I spoke to Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States. He told me that in France, a Frenchman is someone who can tell you what village his family is from going back centuries. Immigrants never really get to become Frenchmen. It made me think back to the hideous massacre in Paris the year before.

Here in America, of course, we’re all immigrants. Except, of course, for Native Americans against whom we committed genocide. I’m a Jew, but I’m also an American. Muna is Somali, but she’s also an American. On Election Day, I ran into her on campus at the University of Minnesota, where I was getting out the vote for Hillary. She told me that her sister, Anisa, had been voted homecoming queen.

That’s who we are. In places like France, they isolate their refugees and immigrants. In America, we elect them homecoming queen. 

– From the book Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. Copyright 2017 by Al Franken.

The poignancy of the story is somewhat diminished in the writeup. In the City Arts broadcast, Franken’s voice broke as he recounted the graduation. He sounded sincere.

We hope there’s something redeeming in the fact that some, perhaps many, of our elected leaders care about creating a decent society. We believe there are roots of possibility in many Americans’ understanding that one can be or become American, regardless of country of origin, ethnic heritage, or physical characteristics. The stories we tell about ourselves do help create a more humane reality.

Helping Kids Embrace Their Differences

This article caught our attention as we sit here, hurt and raging over the atrocious mass shooting in Las Vega: Illustrated Books to Help Children Embrace Their Differences, from the New York Times’s Match Book series. The article responds to a mother’s letter asking for books to offer her 4-year-old, on-the-spectrum son. She writes,

He’s just beginning to realize he’s a little different. He has always loved reading, so I’ve begun to use books to help him find comfort in this world.

The content is gentle and focused on the comforting fact that a picture book can help put little people a bit more at ease in the world. We also love that it starts with The Story of Ferdinand; one of us had a beloved doggie named after the gentle Spanish bull.

Writer Nicole Lamy’s response is reprinted below (original is here). We’ve added hyperlinks to the books she mentions.

“The serene, misunderstood bull who stars in The Story of Ferdinand, the 1936 classic written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, prefers sniffing flowers in the shade of a cork tree to butting heads with others in his herd or sparring with the banderilleros and picadores in the ring. The perceptive hero of James Marshall’s Snake, His Story (part of his droll, intimate 1970s-era quartet, “Four Little Troubles”) — whose ability to hear sets him apart from his slithery classmates and causes his parents much consternation — learns to appreciate his unique abilities after he thwarts a pair of criminal bulldogs. A fuzzy teddy bear named Tah Tah is the source of social anxiety for a hesitant boy in Bernard Waber’s conversationally on-the-nose picture book from 1972, Ira Sleeps Over. Embracing difference has long been a hallmark of children’s stories.

Contemporary picture-book authors carry on the tradition started by authors of classics; they’re champions of uniqueness, artfully celebrating the qualities of fictional children — and quite a few anthropomorphized animals, some crayons and even a piece of cutlery — while also tackling tricky social situations. The best among them sneakily construct bridges to real-life children struggling with understanding and self-acceptance.

Object Lessons—The dejected utensil in Spoon, the adorably punning tale written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Scott Magoon, longs to cut and spread like Knife or twirl pasta like his friend, Fork; little does he know that his flatware friends envy him too. Spoon’s mother comes through in the end, comforting her little guy by gently reminding him of the sweetest parts of his life. (You may have read Krouse Rosenthal’s essay in the New York Times this spring, You May Want to Marry My Husband –SmSt eds.)

More inanimate empathy arrives in Michael Hall’s Red: A Crayon’s Story. Though his wrapper reads “Red,” the book’s hero is an erroneously labeled blue crayon who can’t color a fire engine or a stoplight with any kind of verisimilitude. When a new purple friend asks for his help with an art project, Red’s friends and family finally see his true color.

I’m O.K., You’re O.K.—Jewel tones and childlike drawings add to the joy quotient in The Okay Book, Todd Parr’s relentlessly affirmative, warmly oddball book. “It’s okay to have no hair,” reads one page. “It’s okay to wear what you like,” reads another. I wish my favorite line from the book, “It’s okay to put a fish in your hair,” could replace the banal phrase, “It takes all kinds,” as an offbeat expression of acceptance. (We wrote about another of Parr’s books, The Goodbye Book, here –SmSt eds.)

It’s All Relative—Two books about families tell stories about belonging, in very different styles. The flying squirrel in Zachariah OHora’s antic My Cousin Momo doesn’t fit in with the cousins he’s visiting: He thinks hide-and-seek is an opportunity to find mushrooms; he wears a giant muffin costume when his cousins dress as more recognizable superheroes. Heartache comes before acceptance for the saucer-eyed Momo. An interspecies separated-at-birth story with plot twists and a happy ending, Stellaluna by Janell Cannon shows the joy and freedom felt when someone—in this case a bat raised by a family of birds—is allowed to be herself.

Class Acts—Hidden talents are uncovered in two empowering school stories. In I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard, Jennifer K. Mann’s sympathetic and stellar portrait of Rose, who struggles in school yet longs for recognition, reveals a girl who feels like a misfit yet eventually discovers herself as an artist. The cleverly rhyming The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade written by Justin Roberts and illustrated by Christian Robinson tells the story of the unobtrusive, uncommonly observant Sally McCabe who finds her voice when she speaks up for compassion and unites her school.

Friend Requests—Two sensitive books about outsiders learning to make friends show kids the way in. Dennis, a silent boy who mimes in Be a Friend by Salina Yoon, prefers pretending to tangible play. His style is smart and creative, but it can be lonely when other children climb trees while you prefer to act like one. One day, though, Dennis kicks an imaginary ball. When a girl named Joy catches it, a friendship takes shape. In Jack and Michael Foreman’s simple, spare story Say Hello, a lonely, disconsolate boy on the sidelines is unsure how to break into a game. A serendipitous moment with a dog and red ball helps the boy to join in the fun and understand that he is not alone.”

Thanks for reading with us, friends.

Friday Music: Song for a Peaceful Night

UfrosAleinu
Image by Laura Bolter

Today is the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, and next week is the start of the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashanah. In honor of the occasions, here’s a Jewish prayer and song, Hashkiveinu, sung by Craig Taubman. Hashkiveinu means something like ‘Let us lie down’. For me, the fall has always felt like a time of renewal, perhaps because it’s when the school year starts.

Emily and I wish you a weekend of peace and time spent with loved ones.   ~ Eva

The full translation is as follows:

Grant that we may lie down in peace, Eternal God, and awaken us to life.

Shelter us with Your tent of peace and guide us with Your good counsel. Shield us from hatred, plague and destruction. Keep us from warm famine and anguish. Help us to deny our inclination to evil.

God of peace, may we always feel protected because You are our Guardian and Helper. Give us refuge in the shadow of Your wings. Guard our going forth and our coming in and bless us with life and peace.

Blessed are You, Eternal God, whose shelter of peace is spread over us, over all Your people Israel, and over Jerusalem.*

Transliteration (phonetic translation of Hebrew words): Hashkiveinu, Adonai Eloheinu, l’shalom, v’haamideinu shomreinu l’chayim, ufros aleinu sukat sh’lomecha, v’takneinu b’eitzah tovah milfanecha, v’hoshi-einu l’maan sh’mecha. V’hagein baadeinu, v’haseir mei-aleinu oyeiv, dever, v’chere, v’raav, v’yagon, v’harcheik mimenu avon vafesha. Uv’tzeil k’nafecha tastireinu, ki El shomreinu umatzileinu atah, ki El chanun v’rachum atah. Ushmor tzeiteinu uvo-einu l’chayim ul’shalom, mei-atah v’ad olam. Baruch atah, Adonai, haporeis sukat shalom aleinu v’al kol amo Yisrael v’al Yerushalayim.

Hebrew:

הַשְׁכִּיבֵנוּ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וְהַעֲמִידֵנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְחַיִּים. וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ וְתַקְּנֵנוּ בְּעֵצָה טוֹבָה מִלְּפָנֶיךָ וְהוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ וְהָגֵן בַּעֲדֵנוּ. וְהָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶּבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן וְהָסֵר שָׂטָן מִלְּפָנֵינוּ וּמֵאַחֲרֵינוּ וּבְצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ תַּסְתִּירֵנוּ כִּי אֵל שׁוֹמְרֵנוּ וּלְשָׁלוֹם
מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ הַפּוֹרֵשׂ סֻכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל יְרוּשָׁלָיִם

 

*All three translations from Temple Adat Elohim, here.

Working Women in Their 30s

An essay on pacing and perspective for the long haul

Parini-TheCut
Illustration: Anna Parini. Screen grab from top of The Ambition Collision, here.

Yesterday, The Cut published an essay by Lisa Miller, entitled The Ambition Collision, about a loss of career ambition that’s hitting the author’s female, thirty-something friends. Some parts of it resonate with us—we’re both in our mid-thirties—so we’re sharing it with you.

We note that this article is about upper middle-class professional women, i.e. not applicable to a lot of women in the same way Lean In wasn’t a primer for many folks. We’ll also note that our professional paths haven’t been so climbing-the-career-ladder oriented as Miller’s friends’, nor so (apparently) smooth. Still, some of Miller’s essay does touch on thoughts we hear from friends and feelings we’ve experienced about the lack of meaning in white collar jobs.

In the spirit of sharing some perspective on how to handle this disappointing reality without resigning from professional life, and, frankly, pacing oneself for any tough, long-term effort to change entrenched systems, here are the concluding paragraphs of The Ambition Collision.

“A dose of perspective is, perhaps, required here. The lesson of The Feminine Mystique was not that every woman should quit the burbs and go to work, but that no woman should be expected to find all her happiness in one place — in kitchen appliances, for example. And the lesson for my discontented friends is not that they should ditch their professional responsibilities but that they should stop looking to work, as their mothers looked to husbands, as the answer to the big questions they have about their lives. “I think possibly work has replaced ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after,’ and that is a false promise,” says Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “Everyone needs to have more than one thing in their life. We find people who are dual-centric to be most satisfied. If people put an equivalent stress on their life outside of their job they get further ahead and are more satisfied at their job.”

“To be clear: This is not about settling, about making peace with the humdrum sexism of traditional workplaces. Rage and revolution are called for, and such upheaval requires more professional investment by more females, not less. Instead, this is about a shift in perspective — an appreciation for imperfect circumstances and unmet yearnings as facts of life, and a willingness to seek gratifications and inspirations outside the boundaries of a job. Dogs are helpful in this regard. So are children and friends and sports and museums and live music and sex and activism and charity. The other day, I saw a 6-year-old girl wearing a T-shirt that said “Undefeatable.” She was skipping down the street and holding her father’s hand. And I thought, That’s the problem right there. Surely, that girl is as defeatable — or as undefeatable — as anyone. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t grow up to fight.”

You can read the full essay here.

Welcome back, teachers! We love you all.

A back-to-school roundup of posts and readings.

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Here’s to all teachers and educators returning to the classroom, wherever that might be for you. And what a first week it’s been. Below are some of our most popular posts that may be helpful as the new school year begins.

If you, like us, live in a place where far-right and white-supremacist groups have been coming to visit, check out “Students and Civil Disobedience: Lesson Plans and Activities” and its sister-post, “Students and Civil Disobedience: A Reading List” for ideas on how to contextualize this moment in US history. For those who might have students participating in marches and counter-protests, we have some tips.

Teaching climate change? We will post information as soon as we have it on how to help Houston-area educators and students as they recover from massive flooding. (If this is you, and you have the bandwidth, please let us know what would be helpful, and we will amplify!) If you are currently on dry ground, here are resources for helping students encounter the basic science and impacts of climate change in the classroom.

In the spirit of resistance, we wanted to highlight one of our lesser-read but best-loved roundups: our post on the history of several US and Canadian general strikes. Seattle, Winnipeg, and Oakland all hold history that we never encountered in school. Don’t let your students be like us.

Best of luck to all in the new school year, and watch this space for more Small Stones Interviews. And if you have your own story to tell, please get in touch!

Do What You Can: One Woman’s Essay on Race and NFL National Anthem Protest

Browns sculpture
Sculpture at the Cleveland Browns’ stadium. Photo by Erik Drost. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0. Original at https://flic.kr/p/WNpLuF.

Happy Friday, everyone.

Local NPR is abuzz with people discussing this weekend’s planned bigot rallies in San Francisco (Saturday) and Berkeley (Sunday), and with counter-protesters’ plans.

In the spirit of thinking about using our agency in the ways that feel possible, here’s a brief essay by Erica Harris DeValve, who graduated college a couple months ago. Her husband, Seth, plays football for the Cleveland Browns. He made headlines this week for kneeling in a prayer circle with his African-American teammates during the national anthem. (Seth DeValve is white).

Harris DeValve’s essay for Very Smart Brothas is entitled, I’m Proud of My Husband for Kneeling During the Anthem, but Don’t Make Him a White Savior.” It’s a beautifully written essay whose title captures its main point. You should read it anyway for the clarity of her voice and her point, as well as to be reminded that this is the voice of an approximately 22-year-old woman and the actions of her 24-year-old husband. People of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences levels are working with their friends and acquaintances to embody their values.

Anyhow, here’s Harris DeValve, who says this and more better than I can.

I am grateful for the widespread support and praise that Seth is getting for his actions, but I would like to offer a humble reminder that a man—a black man—literally lost his job for taking a knee, week after week, on his own. Colin Kaepernick bravely took a step and began a movement throughout the NFL, and he suffered a ridiculous amount of hate and threats and ultimately lost his life’s work in the sport he loves.

We should not see Seth’s participation as legitimizing this movement. Rather, he chose to be an ally of his black teammates. To center the focus of Monday’s demonstration solely on Seth is to distract from what our real focus should be: listening to the experiences and the voices of the black people who are using their platforms to continue to bring the issue of racism in the U.S. to the forefront. Seth, as a white individual, never has and never will truly have to feel the weight and burden of racial discrimination and racial oppression. No white person does or will. But all white people should care and take a stand against its prevalence in this country.

What I hope to see from this is a shift in the conversation to Seth’s black teammates, who realistically have to carry that burden all the time. I am discouraged by this idea that acknowledging and fighting against racism is a distraction that must be stored away in order to be a good football player. I wholeheartedly reject that narrative.

Black players in the NFL cannot just turn their concern on and off in order to be able to focus more on football. White players shouldn’t, either. Racism is a day-to-day reality, and I hope that, instead of holding Seth up on a pedestal, the response will be to do what he did: listen to the voices of the black people in your life, and choose to support them as they seek to make their voices heard.”

Read the rest of Harris DeValve’s essay here.

You should really check out Very Smart Brothas whole site. Here’s a searing article from last week: How Trump Ruined My Relationship With My White Mother.

 

Personal Thoughts After Cville

Dear friends and readers,

CBJ-2

This is a personal reflection.

In another part of my life, I help run a newsletter of social justice events. There’s a joint Jewish-Muslim event coming, and yesterday I received an email that read, in part, “The Palo Alto Police Department recommends not putting it on social media, so we are refraining from that.” And I’m, like, “Let’s advertise it! Bring on the white supremacists! Let them show their faces.” I’m not going to do that, but a substantial part of me wants to.

Folks should know: Jewish people (me. my family.) attend synagogue under armed guard in California. I grew up attending a Bay Area synagogue burnt down by white supremacists two years before my birth. Our Holocaust-survivor Cantor was injured trying to rescue the Torahs. The texts are considered holy, so they are buried and memorialized in the synagogue courtyard, for everyone to see. When I was 10, the synagogue was grafitti’d with swastikas. I never liked going to temple very much, and still don’t. I carry around the feeling, “Really? You want me to deal with this sh*t in the name of something I’m not sure I believe?” with the competing feeling of, “I’ll be damned if some bigoted jerks are going to change my behavior.”

I’m not scared, I’m angry. Incandescent, actually. Black, brown, Muslim, and immigrant lives matter. Yes, all lives matter, but especially the ones that face daily targeting and could use some extra moral support and physical protection.

All of the denigration of human worth we see happening is related. My mother’s family escaped Nazi Germany. Most of my husband’s family on his dad’s side perished, and his Polish grandmother spent World War II hiding in a basement. My nieces and nephews get evacuated from their JCCs annually due to bomb threats. Hell, so do the Christian babies of friends who use JCC preschools. I can “pass” on the street if I don’t wear a Star of David, because I’m white, but a couple weeks ago, my friend of Indian descent was told to “go home” in the Safeway parking lot in Mountain View, with his infant daughter in the car. This man is more Californian than I will ever be, and he has the flat, native California accent to prove it. A college friend’s Nigerian-American husband risked his life to photograph the supremacists in Charlottesville this past weekend. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at their family’s bravery.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I want to add my voice. You should care about these problems because they are immoral. You should also care because it costs taxpayer money for police to respond to racist garbage, to patrol past threatened houses of worship and community centers, to over-police largely black neighborhoods.

The things happening right now in the US are wrong. They aren’t new, but the volume is louder and it would be sinful not to respond. People needing to fear the government’s action (or inaction) is wrong. The hatefulness, whether by commission or omission, is in our systems and in our streets and we cannot accept it.

I don’t have neat answers, but I encourage you to do a little more than you’ve been doing. I’m an introvert, but I’ve found it powerful to attend solidarity rallies (I’ve only started doing this in the last few months.) It’s not always because they’re directly impactful, but because it seems to help folks feel less alone—both those participating and those who pass by and smile at us. Give money to places like CAIR, Cville Solidarity, the SPLC, or any other causes that move you. Ask your friends what they’re doing and tag along. Get together with friends or your faith community and invite a speaker to teach you about Black Lives Matter. Try to stretch a little past your comfort zone, as a demonstration of the fact that you care.

Sending love to you. -Eva