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.

Working Women in Their 30s

An essay on pacing and perspective for the long haul

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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.

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

Principles for Nonfiction Storytelling

Beyond-Cover
Image courtesy of Goodreads. Original here.

Hi, friends! We’re back!

For our first post since vacation, we’re sharing some advice from Katherine Boo, who’s perhaps best known for writing the 2012 National Book Award winner Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  We found her list of principles for responsible nonfiction storytelling thought provoking. The original story is here, published by Nieman Storyboard on July 25, 2017 and written by Katia Savchuk. We’ve condensed Boo’s rules below.

Katherine Boo’s 15 rules for narrative nonfiction

  1. It’s not enough to tell the stories of victims. I also need to investigate perps.
  2. I let what I hate give me wing. —It doesn’t matter what pisses you off, she says, as long as you pay attention to that feeling. “Writing against” is a good compass “until you know what you’re writing for,” she said.
  3. I’m not the sum of my best or most difficult circumstances, and neither are the people I report on.
  4. When I’m first settling into a place, I tell myself that strong presumptions will make me miss what’s happening.
  5. Memory sucks. —Boo says she reports out everything she can. She’s found that people sometimes deny their own experiences during the fact-checking process, until she plays back video showing them their own words. After a day of reporting, she also immediately writes an email to her husband capturing the emotion of that time.
  6. I ask myself: “What would really get lost if this story never ran?” —Boo engages in an inner dialogue that keeps her going until she finds a bigger meaning for the story.
  7. Don’t be a whiner. —Nonfiction writers shouldn’t get wrapped up in how much sacrifice the work entails. “My presence isn’t doing them a favor,” she said of her subjects. “They’re doing me a favor.”
  8. I don’t try to find simple characters. —“If you’re searching for a super-virtuous character, you’re denying … the infinite variety of the human condition,” Boo said.
  9. I try never to forget that my “subjects” are really my co-investigators.
  10. Though I seek out the public record maniacally, I don’t assume that it’s accurate. —Government documents and other public records often reflect the interests and perspectives of those in power, Boo noted. So she makes sure to supplement these sources with “hang-out journalism.”
  11. To calibrate my compass as a writer, I share my work widely and not only with journalists. —Her 12-year-old nephew told her he couldn’t smell the slums when he read a draft of her book. Others reported when they started to get bored.
  12. Editors and publishers don’t know what’s going to sell.
  13. Even if I’m telling urgent stories, I can still experiment with form and make it a creative process. —“If your subject, like mine, is one people don’t necessarily want to read about, you have to do that,” Boo said. She encourages journalists to “read above your station.” Her own work has been inspired by the novelists Roberto Bolaño and George Eliot, among others.
  14. When after a lot of effort I can’t pin something down, I force myself to put that uncertainty on the page. —Boo says she fact-checks “like a madwoman.” When she can’t find confirmation for something, she makes that explicit. “Getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care,” she said.
  15. If my work is successful, I don’t go and get high on my own supply. —“You know better than anyone where the essential courage of the enterprise resides—with the people who risk retaliation, share their stories and help journalists build piece by piece a crucial alternative public record of our time,” Boo said.

We’ll be thinking on these in the days to come. We invite you to read the original article here.

Our Inspiration: Voice of Witness

An organization at the root of ethical storytelling

Emily Breunig, one of our co-founders, taught community college composition for years, often using a text called the Voice of Witness Reader. So of course Voice of Witness was on her mind when she created Small Stones. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when our other co-founder, Eva Kaye-Zwiebel, attended Voice of Witness’s four-day oral history workshop in San Francisco.

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Dragon in front of San Francisco Asian Art Museum, which kindly hosted the VOW workshop

Voice of Witness (VOW) is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the stories of people who have experienced injustice but are largely unheard in the public square. In fact, VOW’s tag line is “amplifying unheard voices.” They describe their mission like this:

“Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand. Through our oral history book series and education program, we amplify the voices of people impacted by injustice, teach ethics-driven storytelling, and partner with human rights advocates.”

If you’ve read or heard about Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What, about Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, you might recognize it as part of VOW’s origin story. Eggers’s experience of working with Deng was instrumental to his inspiration to found Voice of Witness, along with Lola Vollen and Mimi Lok. VOW now publishes oral history collections and creates resources to help teachers, activists, and youth create oral history, too.

At this year’s training, Eva and 25 or so classmates participated in discussions, brainstorms, and role-playing with oral history teacher-practitioners. Then, everyone buddied-up to go through the process of telling a personal story and recording a partner’s story. (You can read part of Eva’s story here. VOW’s blog about this year’s workshop is here.) It was a very intimate and emotional experience: there’s a feeling of “nakedness” to sharing a private experience with another person, but also a feeling of strength in seeing that story written down, as well as its impact on others when it’s read aloud.

Our interview process is directly inspired by VOW’s work. If you think you might want to speak to us—or introduce us to someone who might—please do get in touch at smallstonesedu@gmail.com.

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Last day of class: Group photo at the Voice of Witness 2017 “Amplifying Unheard Voices” workshop

Small Stones Interviews: Eze Amos, Photographer

“…and then some of them took a knee and got out their gas masks, and at this point I was telling some of the policemen, ‘This is not necessary! What are you doing?'”

Here at Small Stones, we define education, and educators, broadly. So often, classrooms appear in the most unexpected places.

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Resist! Protesting the Ku Klux Klan. Photo by Eze Amos.

As we continue our own work of interviewing some of these educators, we wanted to share with you work from a friend of the blog. Photographer and photojournalist Eze Amos, a Charlottesville, Virginia local, has found himself in the middle of some of the larger protests and counter protests that have taken place since the 2016 election. We are featuring some of his images in this post; there are far more on his Instagram feed.

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Resist! Protesting the Ku Klux Klan. Photo by Eze Amos.

The issue at hand? A statue of Robert E. Lee, erected in 1924, that the city voted to remove earlier this year. The removal, however, is being held up by legal challenges. In May, white supremacist groups marched on the city carrying torches. This past Saturday, July 8, the KKK arrived. Continue reading “Small Stones Interviews: Eze Amos, Photographer”