Politics, Loss, and Emphathy with Joe Biden

“You don’t know the pain other people have had.” – Joe Biden

Following yesterday’s shooting at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice, and thinking about the oral history training we’re about to attend, we offer this excerpt from an interview by Terry Gross with former Vice President Biden. Biden’s point is not new, but today feels like a good day to remember that we share humanity with our political adversaries, and that where possible, we should foster empathy as well as passionate and principled disagreement. The interview took place earlier this week. Full text and audio here.

Terry Gross: I want to ask a few questions about you and your life. You’ve been touched by death several times. Beginning when you—just before you took the oath of office as senator, your wife died. Your baby daughter died. Your two sons were hospitalized ’cause of a car accident. Your son Beau died not long ago. You were read last rites when you had your aneurysm. Thank God you survived.

The Senate is a place where it’s real hardball. I mean, collegial or not, it’s about politics. It’s about hardball. It’s about power to get your agenda passed and so on. A lot of people are there because they like power, because they really value power and want to have it. So coming from this place where you’ve been exposed to mortality and to, like, the ultimate meaning of life, what was it like to be in the Senate, where it’s not a place where I’d imagine it’s easy to express vulnerability, where you have long, reflective

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Small Stones Interview: A Civil Rights Lawyer

“I’m definitely one of the people who didn’t realize how fragile everything really was…”

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Image via The Seattle Times

Our third Small Stones interviewee has requested anonymity. She is a civil rights lawyer actively working on what we non-legal minds like to call The Legal Resistance (hey, it sounds cool). We hope this interview will be just her first foray into educating laypeople about what’s going on in government and the implications it may have for our lives.

As you might expect, she’s experienced some pushback, and therefore we’ll be keeping her identity under wraps. Though we can’t tell you who she is, we’re happy to be able to publish our conversation in full below. Read on to find out what keeps her heading into work each morning, despite some very real misgivings about where the system is headed.

Small Stones (SS): How would you define what you do? I’ve been poking around your firm’s site, and it seems like you deal with a lot of good things!

A Lawyer (AL): I say I’m a civil rights lawyer, but I also do workers’ rights and consumer protection. I do a lot of “this looks important and interesting and like I could be useful. I’ll do that for a while.”

SS: That’s actually an excellent segue to my most pressing question. How are things different for you all, day to day, under this administration?

AL: A few ways, I think.
 First, when everyone thought Hillary would be elected, we had all of these plans about how we would push forward and make the world better, and we still have those, and some of them are still viable. But a lot more of what we do now is trying to protect the status quo.

With Scalia’s death and the new appointment, we were gearing up to try to get a bunch of things before the Supreme Court
, and now we’re on the defensive. And that’s true with everything.

SS: As a layperson, it’s been a bit disheartening to see how many governmental norms are really dependent on everyone agreeing that they are norms.

AL: Yeah, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m definitely one of the people who didn’t realize how fragile everything really was—and just how quickly it could change when everyone decides to just stop agreeing.

Continue reading “Small Stones Interview: A Civil Rights Lawyer”

Small Stones Interviews: The Rev. Kat Banakis

Kat Banakis is the Theologian-in-Residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois.

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The Rev. Kat Banakis is the Theologian-in-Residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois. Her writing, preaching, and teaching explore how to be people of faith in this time and place. She is host and producer of The Holy Holy Podcast, an interfaith program on life’s large questions bringing together secular leaders with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian voices. She is the author of Bubble Girl: An Irreverent Journey of Faith (Chalice, 2013), which puts Christian systematic theology into an accessible, narrative form for personal and group reflection on how our stories are wrapped up in God’s story. Outside of St. Luke’s, Kat works in fundraising consulting for large non-profit organizations. She and her husband live in Chicago. Full disclosure: Kat and the Small Stones editors were college classmates.

Small Stones: We are picking people to talk to who are engaged in education at all sorts of different levels and worlds, and part of why you came up is because of the podcast work you were doing in the second half of last year, and because so much of what that podcast is, at least from my perspective, is very educational. And not in a way that’s didactic or anything like that, but it seems like it was educational for the participants, and it was educational for the people listening. It was a really great interfaith, intergeneration dialogue… and that feels very last-administration.

I’m curious, given that you recently had that role, how do you look at what we have happening now, in the civic world, that’s really invoking a lot of notes of conservative religious positions, too?

Kat Banakis: So Karl Barth is a mid-20th century theologian, and he talked about how when you preach, you always do so with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. And when I was putting together the first season of the podcast, I was really looking at, and to use a religious term, exegeting, my congregation, seeing that so many of the young families coming in had grown up in multi religious or non-religious households, and really for me to be a good pastor to my congregation, I needed to expand my aperture and purview of interfaith work. This was to be able to gain fluency, to be able to pastor to them, and also because I think that it is important in the public square to have interreligious dialogue.

But you also make a really good point that it was, to a certain extent, a situation of the time, in that there was this burgeoning—there’s always been interfaith work in the US, but particularly since 9/11, thinking about intra-Abrahamic initiatives has been very live. And so it was intentionally the sort of topics that bring people back to religion, broad topics, and then doing interfaith education around life issues, which as you point out, felt appropriate to the time, and creating a space for interfaith education around life topics.

Fast forward to the present, and—

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Small Stones Interviews: LaQuisha Beckum

“Whether I’m working with the teens, or with the college students, I’m always trying to ensure they are kind to themselves in the process.”

We are thrilled to present the first in a series of Small Stones Interviews, a conversation with educator LaQuisha Beckum.

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LaQuisha Beckum

LaQuisha (they/them) is a community college Psychology/Child Development instructor, currently at American River College, and a Program Coordinator with the Sacramento Youth Commission. They are also the president of the Board of Directors for the nonprofit Generation Reformation. Full disclosure: LaQuisha and one of our editors, Emily, were colleagues for several years at De Anza College. We caught up with LaQuisha in April to find out what they’ve been up to since the election and how the new administration, and its policies, are impacting their students.

Small Stones: So, you are the first person we’re actually talking to–thanks so much! How did you get into education, if we can start from the very beginning?

LaQuisha Beckum: I began my career as a camp leader back in 1996. I worked my way up to assistant site director, then site director receiving certification to work with 5-9-year-olds and 10-14-year-olds. That work was with the YMCA and lasted 5 years. During this time, I was also working as a TA for a professor at SJSU. I spent one year working at a teen center after leaving the YMCA, then went into research. I didn’t start teaching college until winter 2006 at De Anza College.

SS: So what are things are like right now for you, as an educator? You’re at American River now? Teaching psychology?

LB: Yes, I’m at American River College now. Students are hanging in there. I think they feel similar to the rest of us, without them having the historical notes we have. They are feeling anxious, afraid at times, hopeful (one teen told me that he hopes this will be a phoenix phase…things crumble only to be reborn into something better). I work with youth ages fourteen to nineteen AND teach at the college. Nothing that either group has said is vastly different.

SS: What historical notes do you think are most important? Fourteen-year-olds in particular have only really known one administration…

LB: I think above everything, is understanding systems…that these things aren’t created by individuals, that it’s a group effort! We can talk about the idiocy of Drumpf all day, but it took a messed up system to even make it possible for him to reach this rank of government.

SS:  I remember being afraid about what would come next if he weren’t elected, wondering what the system would spit at us the next time.

LB: Exactly…they are familiar with Obama, but they probably didn’t realize he dropped three bombs an hour on the Mid-East in 2016.

I have been quite numb since he [Trump] won.

SS: The optics were way better, but bombs are bombs.

LB: Precisely!

SS: How does it affect how you teach? I’ve been your student before in professional settings, so I know you connect with students well. Is that easier? Harder? More urgent? None of the above?

Continue reading “Small Stones Interviews: LaQuisha Beckum”

The Voices Behind Studs Terkel’s “Working”

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If you’re like we are and you find oral histories fascinating, you’ve probably encountered Studs Terkel’s WorkingIf not, you have a major treat in store. Terkel went around the country in the early 1970s, interviewing people about what they did all day. The result was an incredible collection, one that gave insight into the lives of a wide range of ordinary people. We can attest that it’s excellent for high school or college classroom use, whether in full or as excerpts.

Radio Diaries, in partnership with Project&, has now done one better and made some of Terkel’s audio tapes (via  available for online listening. Check them out if you’ve ever been interested in hearing the voices that Terkel preserved so well.

You can find the feature, Working: Then & Now, at Radio Diaries.

Storytelling

We’ve been musing about the direction Small Stones should take and one avenue we’re pursuing and deepening is storytelling. By that, we mean first-person narratives with a focus on the topics and themes we’ve been blogging about: discrimination, bias, racism, prejudice, and also the tools available to confront these.

Frequent readers will remember some of our oral history posts, including Oral History: An Introduction and Oral History: A Community College Assignment.

As we start developing interviews, we’ll share some resources pertaining to the storytelling process.

Today’s are from The Moth, a storytelling program that’s one of our favorite podcasts. First, three values The Moth promotes, which we offer in the spirit of “food for thought”.

  • We believe that processing experience through narrative can provide insight and agency
  • We believe that listening to stories can widen our perspective and help us realize what we have in common.
  • We believe that a community is strengthened when its members share stories with one another.

And next, some concrete tips for storytelling from The Moth. Keep in mind that The Moth is interested in oral story telling with a particular format, so some of the tips are specific to the genre.

“What to do

“Have some stakes: Stakes are essential in live storytelling. What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay and is best experienced on the page, not the stage.
Start in the action.

“Have a great first line that sets up the stakes and grabs attention: No: “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain. But then I watched a little TV and made a snack and took a nap and my mom called and vented about her psoriasis then I did a little laundry (a whites load) (I lost another sock, darn it!) and then I thought about it again and decided I’d climb the mountain the next morning.” Yes: “The mountain loomed before me. I had my hunting knife, some trail mix and snow boots. I had to make it to the little cabin and start a fire before sundown or freeze to death for sure.”

“Know your story well enough so you can have fun!: Watching you panic to think of the next memorized line is harrowing for the audience. Make an outline, memorize your bullet points and play with the details. Enjoy yourself. Imagine you are at a dinner party, not a deposition.”

“…and what not to do

“Steer clear of meandering endings: They kill a story! Your last line should be clear in your head before you start. Yes, bring the audience along with you as you contemplate what transpires in your story, but remember, you are driving the story, and must know the final destination. Keep your hands on the wheel!

“No standup routines please: The Moth loves funny people but requires that all funny people tell funny stories.

“No rants: Take up this anger issue with your therapist, or skip therapy and shape your anger into a story with some sort of resolution. (Stories = therapy!)

“No essays: Your eloquent musings are beautiful and look pretty on the page but unless you can make them gripping and set up stakes, they won’t work on stage.

“About that (fake) accent: If your story doesn’t work in your own voice, or that of your people of origin, please consider another story. In our experience, imitating accents from another culture or race rarely works and often offends.”

By way of a bonus, here’s a recent broadcast from The Moth: Pam Burrell’s “My Unlikely Brothers“. Click the story name to re-direct to the story, which doesn’t have embed capability.

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(P. Burrell image by Jessica Taves courtesy of The Moth; featured moth image from“[Planches enluminées d’histoire naturelle” (1765) via Flickr.)

Real Warm Fuzzies: Tiny Paper Wins Pulitzer

It’s as good a day as any for a straight-up, feel-good (re)post.

From Poynter.org, here’s a backgrounder and interview with a small-town newspaper editorialist, Art Cullen, who just won a Pulitzer prize. Tiny, family-run newspaper wins Pulitzer Prize for taking on big business.

First, the background:

If you know Art Cullen, it’s not exactly a surprise to learn his initial words upon watching the livestream of the Pulitzer announcements and learning he’d won for editorial writing.

“Holy shit,” he yelled out to his brother, John, the publisher of the family-run, 10-person Storm Lake (Iowa) Times.

The only surprise was that there wasn’t a longer string of un-family-like adjectives or adverbs.   …

[Cullen] won for editorials that confronted the state’s most powerful agricultural interests, which include the Koch Brothers, Cargill and Monsanto, and their secret funding of the government defense of a big environmental lawsuit. His “tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing” were quite self-evident if you’ve seen his labor (which actually spanned two years, though he won for last year’s efforts).

The paper in question is The Storm Lake Times, described in the Pulitzer citation as “a 3,000-circulation twice-weekly newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, pop. 10,000, in rural Northwest Iowa.” Click here to link to the editorials for which the prize was awarded.

Here’s an excerpt of Poynter’s interview with Cullen, by James Warren. The take-away? Local journalism matters. It’s not a novel take, but the Pulitzer payoff drives it home. We hope it reminds you and your students that story-telling and journalism are worthwhile.

What would you like to think are the most important points you made in the editorials?

It’s all about transparency in the funding of the environmental lawsuit (defense). We took on the state’s biggest agricultural players and said their donations should be made public. The biggest players: the Koch brothers, Cargill, Monsanto were all conspiring to fund the defense of the (Buena Vista) county.

We found out they (elected officials) had met with Monsanto executives and Koch executives. My son, Tom, did most of the reporting. And he tracked down how the Agribusiness Association of Iowa was working with the Iowa Farm Bureau to funnel the secret donations to the country.

We cried foul and worked with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. They wrote several letters saying these were public records under Iowa law. They wouldn’t release them, but they shut down the fund. It’s all a matter of transparency in government financing.

How has being in a small place fueled your passion? Is it easier or harder when arguably there’s greater accountability since, well, you may run into people whom you write about on the street?

I lost some friends, but some people don’t understand us, why we would badger county supervisors so that their sugar daddy went away. I said, “Because it wasn’t right.” We felt the public deserved to know who’s paying our bills. We did a lot of groundbreaking news reporting and my son (who’s 24) did most of the heavy lifting.

We’ve spoken before about your work on immigration, especially right after President Trump’s controversial executive order. Is the confusion and fear that we’ve talked about in the Storm Lake area when it comes to immigration still the same?

Things have calmed down. The police chief (Mark Prosser) has calmed things down. He arrives in his police uniform at public forums and says, “We’re not arresting you just because you are undocumented.”      …

What, at first blush, does this recognition say about the people like you, laboring in more isolated environs, busting their asses to survive and believing as you do in journalism?

Journalism really matters, and good journalism is being done all across the country.

Any final thoughts?

Yes. Put in a plug for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. They are broke and have little support.

(Lady Liberty image courtesy of Pulitzer.org website)