RACE CAUCUSING IN AN ORGANIZATIONAL CONTEXT: A POC’S EXPERIENCE

*Originally featured at CompassPoint.org*

In this blog on convening staff racial identity groups, Project Coordinator Kad Smith shares what he learned from facilitating CompassPoint’s People of Color Caucus. Racial caucusing has been one of the steps we’ve been employing as an organization to process and clarify our individual and group understanding of race and jointly define a racial equity agenda that will guide CompassPoint’s internal operations and work in the community. Read more about our goals in our recent blog here

Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to help steward CompassPoint’s staff commitment to explore how our racial identities influence and inform how we work together. As a part of this effort, we held a circle process in mid-2015 that spawned a commitment over the course of 2016 to meet each month in racial affinity groups, also known as race caucuses, to discuss how our individual experiences have informed our perspective on race and racial equity.

We created two staff groups – the People of Color Caucus and the White Caucus – to investigate how these lived experiences consciously and subconsciously impact our approaches to the work. This commitment is one that I am deeply grateful for and also feel is imperative for any organization that wants to do racial justice work. In this blog, I share what I’ve learned as a person of color staff member from racial caucusing and our deepening practice of racial identity exploration within an organizational context.

In the role of “People of Color Caucus Organizer,” I was tasked with figuring out how we as staff members of color would meet, designing to what end we would meet, and ultimately incorporating the ideas of members of the caucus to make sure our time together felt constructive and useful. It was by no means a simple task, but it was one I was energized by. I was thrilled because I had quite honestly not heard of many other organizations that were willing to take on this approach. To dedicate organizational resources (i.e. money) was to me, emblematic of CompassPoint’s decision to truly put racial justice at the center of work.

Why Convene Race Caucuses?

I must admit when I first heard about the idea of caucusing at CompassPoint I wasn’t sure what to expect. In our early conception, we knew we wanted to provide a space for the collective exploration of race, class, power, and privilege, but I think it’s fair to say that many folks had imagined various scenarios of how this might take form. What we did know was that we needed a space for people of color to convene outside of the gaze of our white colleagues. We understood that people of color needed a space to talk about how our experiences in both this work and in this world can be eerily similar and drastically different. Additionally, there was a sense within the POC Caucus that the space might help us figure out what solidarity could look like for us as people of color committed to the work of social, racial, and gender justice.

We also knew that white folks on staff had a mandate to explore whiteness and its impact on their work as practitioners at CompassPoint. As I explained this thinking to various folks across the sector, many would ask why I felt so strongly about separating the groups to discuss race. Many folks would ask, “Doesn’t that take us backwards?” and “How can we come together when we are apart from each other?” These are sensible questions but they are built on the premise that we are starting from a similar analysis of how race impacts us as individuals and on the interpersonal and institutional levels.

Let me be clear, I don't think I'm alone in my assertion that it's important to convene identity-based caucuses along racial lines. My reasoning is informed by my own experiences and is admittedly strongly biased. In the process of exploring and talking about race in an organizational or professional context, I have personally seen how the vulnerability of people of color in multiracial spaces is seldom matched by white colleagues.

The social conditioning of many folks of color often imposes a hyper-awareness of how race influences our social mobility. Many working class people of color (note the intersection of class) don’t have a choice in understanding how our identity shapes how the world engages and often targets us. In fact, an understanding of our racial identity is highly important for both survival and as a tool for upward social mobility. In this sense, reflecting on why race matters is generally more of a necessity to us folks of color than our white colleagues who have yet to begin that deeply introspective work. That work is often highly alarming and shocking for a great many white folks to seriously engage in. (For more on this subject, read the article "Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race".)

Furthermore, to be frank, a great many people of color are tired of having to educate white folks on how racism manifests on the interpersonal and institutional levels. We are fatigued from constantly having to “provide examples” of how racism shows up in our organizations and workplaces. We are exhausted from having to hold white folks’ hands through their own exploration of what whiteness means in a white supremacist system. The work of exploring whiteness should be the prerogative of white folks who are truly committed to social and racial justice. In order to do so, white folks must explore the conditioning that exists which makes questioning and exploring their whiteness seem so unobtainable, difficult, jarring, and complicated. As a person of color, the prospect of a White Caucus at CompassPoint intrigued me for that very reason. It provides white folks with the space to explore whiteness outside of the gaze of people of color and without people of color needing to (knowingly or unknowingly) engage in the emotional labor of attending to white fragility.

What I’ve Learned from Our POC Caucus

As our caucusing has progressed, I’ve learned a few things I would recommend be taken into consideration when discussing the value and challenge of convening racial identity spaces:

  1. What You Call It Matters: In calling our racial identity spaces Race Caucuses, there were many folks who thought of the space as one that was political in nature. While I don’t think they are wrong (any time we are exploring race, it is a social and political exploration), it did cause a dynamic in our group for folks to question to what end we were caucusing. Were we caucusing for organizational change? Were we caucusing for representation on the management team? More recently, it’s become clear that the racial identity spaces are less about what we are “doing” together and, instead, more about convening to discuss how we are “being” together. By focusing on “being” together, I mean that we structured the caucus to prompt reflection rather than structuring it to respond to all of the needs of CompassPoint’s practice that have to do with race and racial equity. By clarifying this pivot, we opened up the space for folks to more deeply share our stories, build relationships, and ultimately be in community as people of color. We prioritized individual reflection over the need for collective reaction to organizational needs and we did so with an understanding that simply “being” as folks of color is indeed an act of challenging dominant culture. That said, our caucus has proactively worked to acquire organizational influence around appointments to roles and positions, so in some sense it has been a hybrid of “doing” and “being.”
     
  2. Coming Together is Important: Throughout our experience, we’ve been challenged by how to configure “coming-together” sessions between the POC and White Caucuses. There has been some collective trepidation, which is entirely reasonable. When folks start talking race in a POC / White space with power dynamics and organizational politics at play, you run the risk of it getting messy and of potential harm being done (even when the intention is one of healing). That said, on the other side of that messiness, I think we could arrive somewhere beautiful for our practice. I witnessed slivers of it last year at our end-of-year staff retreat. The beauty rests in the emergence of unprecedented honesty and a shared willingness to take off the professional armor and embrace the vulnerability of bringing our full selves into the work.

    I think having a clear outline of how the caucuses would come together and tightly facilitating joint sessions would have enriched the experience. Going forward, I think that is what’s next for our racial identity exploration at CompassPoint.
     
  3. Outside Facilitation: Bringing in outside facilitation for some gatherings also could have been helpful in this collective quest. While it was tremendously enriching for me to step into the role of POC Caucus Organizer, I think being a staff member unintentionally had an impact on how I was able to shape the discourse within the caucus. I think the opportunity to challenge the caucus to go deeper in our sharing, to build more substantial relationships among us as staff, and to ultimately push us to address our own solidarity (or the absence of it) as POC could have been more accessible to an outside facilitator. As we start to think about intensifying our work of anti-oppression and liberation, I think this is something our practice will seriously mull over.
     
  4. It’s Worth the Time: I one-hundred-percent think that racial identity caucuses have improved our individual and collective ability to talk about race. Caucusing has in many ways helped us take off our professional armor and truly bring our full selves to work. It has allowed us to normalize difficult conversations and for individuals to feel more empowered in naming the “elephants in the room.” Without the organizational commitment to this time and space, I do not think the advancement of our racial justice agenda would be where it is today. It has been time well spent and it is time that I hope CompassPoint continues to prioritize as we continue to center racial justice and racial equity in our work.

In all, I would highly encourage experimenting with racial identity caucuses or racial affinity groups within organizations looking to take their commitment to racial justice to the next level. I would also say there is room to convene these identity spaces with an intersectional lens (sexual orientation, gender, organizational power, etc.). While we have yet to do this at CompassPoint, I would not be surprised if it was an approach we took in the years to come as we deepen our practice in the work of being an anti-oppression organization.

If the goal of our organizations is truly to create a more equitable world, our organizations must decolonize the way in which we work. We must think differently about what productivity looks like, we must provide spaces for colleagues to be in community and to build more-than-collegial relationships. We must be willing to unlearn the toxicity that surrounds our racial identities and support our staff in their tumultuous ride of doing so. (The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond offers these helpful insights into the two forms of internalized racial oppression: racial inferiority and racial superiority.) Ultimately, the absence of doing this work is merely an avoidance of addressing that which inhibits us most from completely reimagining our personal purposes in the efforts to build more equitable organizations. Upon crafting these more equitable organizations, I truly believe we will be providing ourselves with the tools we need to forge a drastically different society and future.

Thoughts on 2016 and Deliberately Disruptive Discussions

I think we've got to get more precise with our language when telling people they are harboring sexist, racist, homophobic ideas. The moment people feel they're under attack - they begin to shut down or look to "defend" themselves. Often, mitigating the potential for a really constructive conversation.

If we start with acknowledging how our culture(s) / systems indoctrinate us with racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas...we can establish an entry point for a disruptive discussion. From there, we can acknowledge that we've set a baseline and identified the systemic conditions that are indivisible from the interpersonal expression of these oppressive ideas.

Racism is a norm. Sexism is a norm. Homophobia is a norm.  

By discussing just how ubiquitous these oppressive beliefs are in our society, we begin to soften the soil for folks to understand the perpetuation of them is by design. That is key and cannot be understated. While it doesn't absolve us of personal responsibility for our own beliefs, it provides us with necessary context on just how intentional the "powers at be" have been in getting us to adopt beliefs that are toxic to our society as a whole.  And in my experience, it helps to be vulnerable after acknowledging the existence of these norms. For me, that looks like expressing from first hand experience how you've harbored these very same thoughts (which I would think, a great many of us have done). 

I'm the first to admit... I grew up with bigotry, sexism, & homophobic ideas. I lived with these ideas permeating my psyche and it influenced my behavior as a boy, as a teenager, and even now as a young man. Acknowledging that is why I so deeply believe it can be unlearned. Please know: the "holier than thou" approach and faux-altruism is played. I wont fake the fonk like I haven't played my role in perpetuating systems of oppression.

But what I can say is that I'm tryna do the necessary introspection to free myself from the mental tyranny of our oppressors. In engaging in these discussions, I am extending the invite for folks I encounter to do the same.

What I do know is I am not an advocate of shaming folks into transformation. I believe it leaves folks with a sense of inadequacy that can paralyze them from moving towards critical self-reflection. I don't think that's helpful.

Anyways, this was a twitter thread that I decided to make into something more permanent. Thanks for taking the time to reflect on my random thoughts.

#GodSpeed

Exploring Influence Without Authority

“The Key to successful leadership today is influence,
not authority.”
  - Ken Blanchard

When I first sat down and began writing this, I worried that I'd start curating some thought piece that mirrored the 48 Laws of Power. If you stumbled across this expecting to land on some sort of beatitudes of "how to be influential" in either your organization, within a movement context, or in your community; well, I apologize — because influence just isn't as formulaic as one might like. It's fluid, it's dynamic, and it's evolutionary. Your ability to wield your influence is entirely unique to who you are. The exploration below is my attempt to identify how I've seen individuals successfully tap into their own respective influence and how I have done so myself.

Influence, Authority, and the Evolving Definition of Leadership

So first, let's define influence and authority in order to establish a shared understanding of these terms:

Influence: "The power to change or affect someone or something; the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen" (Merriam-Webster).

Authority: "The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience" (Merriam-Webster).

As a project coordinator at CompassPoint, I was hired into a position that historically hasn't had much formal positional power. In assessing my growth within the organization, I've realized that in the absence of positional power, harnessing my influence has been instrumental in positioning me to confidently articulate my actual and potential contributions to our practice. Our transition to Holacracy—a "system of organizational governance...in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout...self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy" (adapted fromhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holacracy)—is one avenue that's enabling individuals within our organization to develop influence and have autonomy over their own body of work. (Read more about our experience with Holacracy here.)

And as a staff person who's had the benefit of working with clients on the movement level, I've seen how those on our societal margins can hold key influence within social movements. Movement leadership can take on a fluidity that organizations as institutions often don't allow. I can see how it's changing the way many nonprofits—including CompassPoint—are approaching organizational structures, decision-making, and leadership. Using this lens, we can re-evaluate and expand the definition of influence beyond just societal position, and create a radical new image of how organizations are structured.

In the absence of any formal positional authority—and in light of these shifts—assessing how I utilize my influence has made me much more intentional about how I navigate the organizational structure I'm working in and subsequently much more aware of the impact I can have.

Yet, growing our influence isn't done solely for the sake of "being influential." It is always done as a means to an end. In the absence of positional power or commanding authority over others, influence is a tool that is wielded in service of our own development and in service of the causes of the organizations we work with and for.

Understanding and Harnessing Your Influence

While harnessing influence is unique to each individual, I've observed a few overarching instances where you can exercise influence without authority. Here are a few areas to explore:

Embracing the Power of Your Person: You've got to know thyself. As cliché as this may sound, to maximize your influence in an organizational or movement context requires deep introspection and self-investigation. What are your strengths and how do you utilize them? What are your potential areas of improvement and what are the steps that you're taking to work on them? What motivates you and keeps you going? How do you communicate to your colleagues, your comrades, and the community you serve? By exploring all of these things (and beyond) you exhibit your efforts to find your place within your organization and movement. When doing that, people you interact with can reflect on what that might look like for themselves and are very likely to be influenced to engage in their own self-exploration and introspection. A team, an organization, or a movement full of people who are self-aware is a recipe for dynamism and, in my humble opinion, increases the potential for possible successful outcomes with whatever goal, task, or mission you are pursuing. 

Relationships: Any community organizer will tell you the number one most important principle in organizing is building relationships. And in many ways, successfully organizing is about how you develop and utilize the influence you have. To be influential in an organizational or movement context, you have to value taking the time to build and nurture meaningful relationships. When positions give us authority over others, in my experience, our approach to relationships seem much more transactional and our assessment of the time those relationships need seems much more one dimensional. Inversely, absent of authority, I feel the relationships we build allow us to influence each other in more transformational ways and allow for more multi-dimensional interactions.

Listening: People want to be heard. In a world where everyone has so much to say and so much that they're feeling, listening is the number one way to develop influence in my opinion. I'm not talking about the type of listening where you're hearing what's said but not actually processing it, nor the listening that is in service of your own narrative, nor the listening that mandates you to be the savior who fixes people's problems. I'm talking about the type of deep listening that makes people feel truly heard, feel recognized, and feel valued for simply being themselves. And trust me, I don't mean to make this sound simple. This is one of the hardest skills to build. But once you can hone it in an authentic and genuine way, chances are people you've listened to will listen to you in return. And as Jay Z once said, “First I had their ears, now I have their hearts.” Our influence begins and ends with how willing we are to truly listen to folks and how much we desire to be truly heard.
 

By lifting up the importance of influence, I'm not advocating for the absence of organizational hierarchy, people stepping into positional leadership that grants them power, or de-legitimizing the often appropriate need for formal authority. Having clear lines of authority can be healthy when authority is maintained with integrity and there is alignment around what the group values. We must continue to name and identify that we have the ability to influence our colleagues, our comrades, and our communities, without ever holding formal positions of power or titles that are intrinsically authoritative. By realizing this and fully stepping into it, we are empowered by the fact that wielding influence is essentially achievable by anyone. The same cannot be said about the ability to obtain an authoritative position due to various factors of social mobility and structural forces of oppression. As we intentionally try to create a radically different world that has more dynamic social justice organizations, broader social movements with less of a "leader out front," and societies where every single life is truly valued, decoupling the notion of influence from those who have wielded authority is imperative. It will humble us, it will awaken us, and hopefully, it will aid us all in our personal transformation.

The Sanctity of Sorry and Appreciating the Value of Apologies

ContextIt's been a while since I've written anything and probably for good reason. I've been finding myself, working hard to wrestle with the aspects of myself that are holding me back from becoming a better person, and in general, assessing what it is I really want from the limited life I have. But, regardless of all that, I've still been thinking! 

Sincere apologies are for those that make them, not for those to whom they are made... Sincere apologies are for those that make them, not for those to whom they are made.
— Greg LeMond

So context aside, I've been thinking a lot lately about my tendency (I suspect I'm not alone in this) to apologize absent of truly feeling sorry. This dynamic manifests in many situations: when talking with loved ones, when discussing things at work, when trying to resolve a conflict and probably more situations than I can recall right now. 

What it's lead me to realize: I am consistently contributing to the degradation of the sanctity of sorry. Every time I inappropriately say I'm sorry, I am diminishing the value offered in proposing a true apology. In saying I'm sorry without truly feeling sorrow, I am lying to myself and to anyone else listening to my false expression. In using sorry as a filler word, I am disparagingly ignoring the importance that sorrow as an emotion holds. I am notably lacking the will power to self-correct the miscommunication occurring, by not relaying what I'm actually feeling in the moment. 

Perhaps most notable to me: often when saying "I'm sorry", what I am really doing is asking to be excused for some part of my identity, my beliefs, my values, my thoughts, or my feelings at any given moment. This is extremely problematic to me when I think about what it means at the core. In a society that has conditioned us to feel shame if we aren't in alignment with any social norm or dominant group narrative, when we engage in extending courtesy apologies because we believe some aspect of who we are might upset or offend others, we are perpetuating a big problem. In fact, we are actively reinforcing all the systems around us, which are designed to break us down and reduce our self-worth. 

So here's what I've done in reflection of all this: I've written a short "poem" (if you want to call it that) to refer to throughout my week and to check myself, especially if I find myself falling into the trap of using empty apologies or waving the false "sorry-flag." Thus far, I'm failing miserably at refraining but hopefully with time, I'll develop a practice of refraining from saying I'm sorry (unless I truly am). Here it is: 

I'm not sorry.
Really, I'm not sorry! 
I'm not sorry for feeling pride in my beliefs, in my values, and my own ideas. 
I'm not sorry for knowing I won't ever be able to please everybody. 
I'm not sorry for being a young Black man in America. Black is beautiful, Black is brilliant.
I'm not sorry that my vulnerability is making you uncomfortable. 
I'm not sorry that I've made countless mistakes. I've tried to learn from all of them.
I'm not sorry that we disagree. I hope you aren't either.  
I'm not sorry for asking questions that I want answers to. I'm curious. 


I am unapologetic for being guided by my own moral compass. 
I am unapologetic for calling out what I perceive to be an injustice. 
I am unapologetic for defending my loves ones. 
I am unapologetic for loving my self. 

I am unapologetic for being Kad Smith. 

My hope from all of this is to truly mitigate the amount of the times where I am apologizing out of a false obligation or saying I'm sorry because it's a social courtesy. If I can begin to come from a place where my apologies mean that much more to me (and who I am apologizing to, hopefully) and then perhaps when I'm exclaiming "I'm sorry" it will be entirely more genuine and authentic to the real feeling in that moment. 

That's all for now folks!
Sending yall love. 
#Godspeed

Toward a Transformative Juvenile Justice System

Originally posted on HuffingtonPost.com. Find it here. 

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Six years ago, I got a first-hand look at the need for a transformative juvenile system, one that ultimately seeks to empower and change young people, not just punish them. At the time, I found myself--a scrawny, frightened, and confused 17-year-old--in a California Juvenile Justice Hall courtroom. My future was in the hands of a judge I only remember as "Judge K." I had heard from peers who had stood before Judge K that he showed no mercy. In the days leading up to my sentencing, I mentally prepared for the worst.

"How did you end up here?" the judge asked of me, a question for which I had no sure answer.

If the judge were considering statistics alone, I suppose I fit all the criteria of an "at-risk" youth. Growing up as a young Black man in a low-income and single-parent home, I had been humorously warned as a child that "the system had three hots and a cot" waiting for me. My own family had felt the impact of incarceration across generations.

But, I also was a peer educator in my community, a high-performing delegate in a statewide mock legislative program (at the time I was coincidentally drafting a joint proposal to end felon disenfranchisement), and perhaps most importantly, a teenager without a criminal record - up until that point.

After a nearly year-long drawn out pre-trial process, I was advised by my public defender to plead "no contest" to a felony charge of grand larceny in Alameda County for being an aggressor of a fight that resulted in someone's pain. The public defender assured me pleading "no contest" was in the best interest of my future. (This counsel is considerably problematic when taken into context: over 90 percent of criminal cases are settled through plea bargains -- before a trial can ever occur.)

As the Sentencing Project reported in 2013, one in three Black males is expected to face prison at some point in their lifetime. Sitting in that courtroom, I faced the reality of becoming "another statistic." Luckily, Judge K did not treat me like a statistic. In fact, leniency, coupled with judicial pragmatism, resulted in Judge K deciding that the appropriate disciplinary measure was six months of formal probation. I often think about my peers then and young people today, who are indeed looked at like statistics, ripped from their families and sent to juvenile hall or California Youth Authority.

The juvenile justice system is supposed to emphasize education, guidance, and rehabilitation, not punishment. But, in my experience, the system emphasized punitive measures over any attempt at real rehabilitation. Outside of the judge's adjudication, what I encountered while navigating the system was a "one-size-fits-all" approach. This was particularly apparent with my probation officer. While I could sense her intentions were ultimately good, she was more of a reference manual about probation than someone from whom I could seek counsel. When we'd meet, I could feel her waiting for me to fail, preparing for me to step out of bounds, to behave in a way she had been conditioned to expect.

I was lucky: being reduced to a statistic and finding myself so limited by stereotypes motivated me to never again place myself in a situation that would leave me feeling so small. But, it is not hard for me to see how being reduced to a statistic and failed by our juvenile justice system could launch one into a perpetual cycle of run-ins with the law. In fact, I get it all too well. A vital step was acknowledging the wrong-doing and offense I had committed. I also decided to become apart of the solution and to advocate for change, rather than simply decrying the problems I saw.

Since my experience, I've been working in nonprofit organizations to advance social justice, finding my voice in my community, and humbly remembering the lessons learned from my youthful transgressions. I hope to one day build on my lived experience by enrolling in law school, which I believe will help me grow into a stronger advocate for transformative practices in both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

In this process, here is what I've realized: we all have a role to play in ensuring a transformative experience for young people who find themselves in the juvenile justice system. For young people, looking forward keeps us motivated to stay the course, whether in school, sports, community, or any other goal. A truly transformative system would hold young people accountable while also allowing them to work toward a more hopeful future. It would also consider the existing conditions that place certain youth within courtrooms more often than others. It would humanize youth in a process that all too often seems to do the opposite.

Achieving a truly transformative juvenile justice system will require that we transition from punitive measures to restorative processes, and recognize that young people are the future of our communities. We must realize that we cannot continue to allow a retributive system to operate under the guise of being rehabilitative.Tangibly, this might look like policies that would incentivize law enforcement officers to bring young people under their wing, not into their cuffs. It would mean implementing a participatory process across the state where passionate young people who have had contact with the juvenile justice system are at the decision-making table when it comes to policies and funding decisions for community-driven programs. These programs could then serve as viable alternatives to what county probation offices, juvenile halls, and California Youth Authority currently provide, and they would large be designed by those who are most acutely aware of our current systems inefficiencies.

Together, we can ensure our justice system allows all young people to have access to hopeful redemption.

This blog is part ten of a series from the Rosenberg Foundation on race and criminal justice.

Reflecting on the Charleston Massacre – Why we must keep our Faith

Racism is Alive and Well

The horrendous massacre which occurred in Charleston last week has left me and millions across this country heavy hearted. The act in itself was as senseless, hateful, and disgusting as anything I can imagine. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims and the entire community of Charleston.

In our response to this calamity, we must understand this was not an isolated incident. It was an act that was a byproduct of a nation that has struggled with institutional and individual racism since its inception. However somber it may be, this act serves as a reminder that our country suffers from a very pestilent form of racism. In remembrance of the fallen, we cannot and must not shy away from this all too painful reality.  

It’s easy to escape into the paralysis of pessimism, to be crippled by fear in facing a deeply rooted hatred that seems insurmountable, to allow our wounds to keep us from the battlefield of righteousness. These are understandable responses; I would be a liar to say there haven’t been many times in my life where I’ve gone through each of these tumultuous reactions.

But we shouldn’t expect progress through the process of seeking to escape, we should search for progress in confronting problems too monstrous to hide from. To me, we can only make headway by acknowledging the shared responsibility we have in addressing the racist underbelly of our great nation and in being accountable for its continuance as both individuals and as a collective society. We move forward by calling to halt the cyclical continuance of cancerous paradigms and weeding out the ill-rooted cultural practices which perpetuate incidents of mass-violence. It lies in denouncing an Us vs. Them mentality, which we've been force-fed since childhood. A better future lies in walking the path less traveled – in facing our personal and societal demons with an intention to rebuke them. 

Why Our Faith Matters

In thinking of the victims of Charleston what comes to mind is Faith. It was the faith they shared which led them to the A.M.E Church where their lives were taken. I can only imagine the heartbreak I would feel if my own Grandmother had been amongst them, studying her bible, singing the old hymns that fill the pews of the Baptist Negro Church. The wickedness of imagining her to be met with hatred in the place she most often found her purest form of love is stomach wrenching. It brings tears to my eye now to imagine such a painful scenario and I can only imagine the embodied emotions the loved ones of those who were murdered are wrestling with now.

My grandmother who has been a devout Christian for almost all of her years, has consistently found her strength through her faith in God. Interestingly enough, I’ve found my own faith through her, praising the spirit she exudes and the resilience she personifies, wishing the driving force within me paralleled that of hers. She has demonstrated how faith may initially be weakened by adversity but ultimately, it is strengthened through it. It is that type of characteristic that I believe provides us with the dexterity we need to navigate this world and to truly morph tragedies into triumph. Unlocking that capacity to be faithful, to remain hopeful in our lowest moments is pious for those who prescribe to a religion, euphoric for those who identify as spiritual, and simply conscientious for anyone else.  

I believe it to be the faith of the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney which allowed him to so courageously lead his denomination in standing for what he thought was (and I would agree) universally right, as he previously stated, “What our church and denomination stands for is really the universal vision of all people being treated fairly under the law as God sees us in his sight.” To not acknowledge the magnitude of empowerment that was instilled within Reverend Pinckney through his faith, posthumously, would be shortsighted of me and not a true commemoration of the heroism he exhibited. There were 8 other people in that church who also met an untimely ending, due to their faith, and in acknowledging that, I vow to maintain faith in the battle against the racist malignancy which ultimately caused their death. They should not have to die in vain. Let their deaths be a catalyst towards healing.

Wherever you place your faith, be it in God, your community, or even within yourself, now more than ever, we must rely on each other to draw from our faithful inclinations. I am not sure we currently have the cure for the affliction of racism that we suffer from today, but I maintain deliberate faith and thus steady conviction in believing an appropriate treatment is within our grasp, awaiting our shared discovery.

#Godspeed

Exciting News – Blessed to be from Berkeley

It is with great pleasure that I announce that I've been officially appointed to the Board of Directors for the Berkeley Democratic Club, Alameda County's largest Democratic Club. Furthermore, I'm elated to announce that I've accepted the challenge of stepping into the Lead Advisor role for the YMCA's Youth and Government, Berkeley Delegation. This is a role that my longtime mentor Nathan F. Dahl has held for 10+ years and will be helping me transition into. I will never fully fill his shoes as Lead Advisor but I hope to amount to at least half the great advisor / mentor he's been to hundreds of Berkeley Youth.

I'm really looking forward to making new meaningful connections, expanding my understanding of how local politics works & most importantly, I'm looking forward to encouraging young people in my hometown to tap into the abundance of political opportunities in Berkeley + Alameda County. My own experience working on the Berkeley Soda Tax served as the primary catalyst that positioned me to step into the roles I now will be fulfilling. A huge THANK YOU to my colleagues / leadership at the Ecology Center who believed in me and inspired me to be apart of that monumental & historical campaign.

Reflecting on the statement that seems to cloud our generation's involvement in Politics, we're often written off in current political conversations "as cynical or apathetic." I must admit: I have been cynical and weary of politics for most of my life, even as someone who majored in Politics at USF. What I think is most important to conclude from that notion – if it is indeed true that we are both cynical and apathetic as a generation – it is most certainly a byproduct of a much larger societal problem + indicative of our current political climate. It is something we cannot idly sit by and accept as the status quo, as our generation will be tasked with facing the most pressing issues our country has ever faced, seen in threats like Climate Change, Cyber-Terrorism, Population Growth, increasing Global Inequity, etc.

I hope that we can steadily reimagine what true Democracy looks like, refocus our views on how Civic Engagement actually pushes the social needle forward and that we take it upon ourselves to be the generation that will adequately magnify the voices of those who have been historically unheard and under-represented.

As Tupac Shakur once said, “I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” In taking advantage of these exciting new opportunities, that is all that I could truly ever wish for.

2015 is proving to take the shape of a challenging, busy, fulfilling and very promising year. I'm blessed and I hope to pay my blessings forward.

#Godspeed #Onelove

Finding Beauty in the Sorrow of Grief

Let me begin by saying Rest in Peace to my mother Debra Smith, whom I don't talk about enough, as she died when I was just two years old. While I don't have any real distinguishable memories of her, I am an extension of her, I am the personified conduit of her legacy. As I've had told to me, she was extremely bright, a black belt in martial arts, had a sense of humor that was golden, and was just as afraid of rodents as I am. I want every living person to know that I am eternally grateful that she was the vessel to which I entered this world. I am also perpetually saddened to know that I will never know just how truly amazing she was and hope that I can make those who remember her, proud to know I am her son, and everything I do is in loving memory of who she was.

I'd also like to honor my fallen comrades, Dante Boguszewski, Prentice Theodore Gray, Kyle Strang and Kyle Hodder Hastorf. All of these young men have impacted the course of my life in very distinct ways. The ways in which they've done so, I surely don't have the appropriate diction to describe. In their short lives, they've had an immensely bold impact on me and helped to determine how I now navigate the world. 

In light of recent events, I've been pondering over the purpose of grief and through this I've come to realize just how important it is for us to experience grief. This contemplation has been prompted by many losses that others around me are now experiencing.  A person who I hold very near to my heart recently lost her Aunt to cancer (FUCK CANCER) and she called me to share the saddening news. She asked me a question that's still ringing through my head now, about how I was able to "do it" or "handle it" when my friend Dante passed on from Cancer. As sorely as I wished I could provide her with some remedy to mitigate the pain she is overwhelmingly feeling, as much as I wanted to suggest some solution to escape the constricting grip of loss that we all feel when a loved one passes on, I was speechless and had no words to truly console her. Additionally, two young men who are like brothers to me also recently lost a brother of their own and are experiencing grief in their own way. I feel for their loss but know I can't provide any words to comfort them, though I will support them in whatever way they will have me do so. Furthermore, a mentor of mine lost her mother not long ago and she shared with me how in her grief she's pursued honest reflection of the relationship she shared with her mother. All of these losses, which are being heavily felt by those I care about, have left me fixated on getting to the core of why grief is absolutely indispensable in our shared human experience.

The thing that strikes me so deeply about grief is how it can sneak up on you and how it stretches the test of time. You never truly stop grieving when you lose someone you love.  It comes in varying waves and the way in which we are affected can take on so many different forms. Sometimes my grief is experienced through rivers of tears in the middle of the night, after I have a dream about Prentice and Kyle Strang together in their final moment. Other times, it's in a stomach wrenching guilt when I think about missing Dante's final SF Giants game and all the times I failed to tell him just how much I loved and appreciated him. Sometimes grief presents itself in the form of mental anguish, as I wrestle with thoughts around Kyle Hodder Hastorf being my very best friend growing up and how I played a part in our relationship eroding as we grew older. I have no knowledge of why grief can be felt in what seems like an unlimited amount of ways but I know deep down these feelings of grief serve a higher purpose. 

Like anything in our temporal connection to this world, the pain that I often feel while grieving is eventually subdued. What remains more constant, as a very notable remnant and is more so apparent when the pain flees is what's really key to me. I don't know exactly how to define it but I believe it's some form of gained perspective or cosmic consciousness. No matter what the sensation of loss feels like, no matter how burdensome grief can seem like initially, I am always reminded that I cannot take life for granted after I reflect on any of my loved ones passing on. My understanding of my own mortality, my refusal to be complacent, and my desire to live life to the fullest is so remarkably linked to my feelings of grief and the losses endured in my years. Through loss, I've gained this beautiful capacity to get just the slightest glimpse of "the bigger picture." I've been gifted with the ability to appreciate the preciousness of each moment, a phenomenon that I can't recall occurring before truly coping with my grief.  In remembering the friends and family who've passed on, in reflecting on my losses, I've ultimately enriched my own vitality.

Furthermore, I've also gained a heightened sense of purpose in this world. A purpose that allows me to see the world outside of myself and to know that I can have an impact on others that will greatly stretch past the time I'm physically present. I've realized this in knowing that I have the privilege of carrying forward my loved ones memory and their presence with me as long as I draw breath on this Earth, as shared also by others who loved them as well. I feel obliged to let everyone I encounter (those who will listen) to know just how amazing the four aforementioned young men were to so many individuals – individuals who shared no blood with them and to whom they had no obligation to treat with such kindness, respect, and compassion. In thinking of the family members that I've lost, I see how our humanity is fortified by the familial bonds that drive us to love, to protect, and to truly absolve ourselves from our tendencies of selfishness, into a place of familial selflessness. If I know anything about my mother, I know that her intention was set on exactly that. A life long lesson gained through what is perhaps my greatest loss.

While physically and emotionally we can no longer bond with those we've lost in the present moment, the bonds that we did form in our shared time are indeed eternal. Our feelings of grief and the necessity to cope with loss is that which provides us with a compass to discover what and who truly matters in the limited time we have here. In that journey, we gain wisdom that is immeasurably important. And for that, I am forever indebted to all those who have directed me toward seeking truth, through remembrance of their passing and in finding beauty in life amongst experiencing the sorrow of their deaths.

Godspeed,

Kad

Marching for Real Climate Leadership

On Saturday, Feb 7th, I took to the streets along with 8,000 others to march in support of real climate leadership across the state of California and beyond. The march was a peaceful – yet powerful – assembly of advocates, activists, and allies of the vital climate justice movement. As the threat of climate change looms, I feel pleased to see this intensifying call to action by people taking to the streets. Our power is generated in the streets by these people, creating a platform for this shared environmental cause.

                     Jane and Alison of Berkeley

                     Jane and Alison of Berkeley

While marching, I couldn’t help but wonder: what exactly does real climate leadership look like? Is it the amalgamation of faces within the crowd, is it the organizers of the march who were pushing for a larger mobilization of individuals sympathetic to their cause, or is it those who wield substantial power currently and might hope to radically disrupt the institutions and systems which have jeopardized the future of our communities? After the march, I began to settle on the idea that all of the above are truly real climate leaders. As I understand leadership, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” qualification. As far as I’m concerned, all the people in the streets of Oakland marching for climate leadership are leaders in their own right. People like Jane and Alison [pictured] of Berkeley who were willing to share their perspective, their laughter, and their wisdom on the BART ride over to the march are real leaders in my eyes.

In the same way drastic climate change threatens us all, the leadership from whom we seek solutions should be reflective of diverse communities. In fact, as I reflect on my experience marching in New York City back in September, in seeking climate leadership of today we must prioritize the inclusion of those who face the greatest impacts of climate change now and not later. These are the inhabitants of vulnerable frontline communities, these are our brothers and sisters often on the margins of current decision-making but most certainly bear  the impact of those decisions.

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It became to clear to me throughout the day that most of the marchers and activists on Feb 7th aren’t confident that Jerry Brown or other government officials are the leadership we need to face the impending climate crisis. A huge portion of the march featured anti-Jerry Brown sentiments. Some funny and some serious, the call for Jerry Brown to ban fracking has never been louder in my opinion. Coincidentally, I witnessed Jerry Brown speak to an audience of 2,700 teens about the threat of climate change just five days after the march in Oakland. This served as an unfortunate reminder that the rhetoric of politicians doesn’t always match their actions.

Shoshana Howard and her partner Ophir!

Shoshana Howard and her partner Ophir!

For 1.8 miles on February 7th, I saw real climate leaders who affirmed my hope. I witnessed a multi-generational group of impassioned and diligent individuals. What I love about marches and large public actions is that they leave me with optimism about the brewing collective push towards a more sustainable future. Marching in the streets with strangers who share my ideals and beliefs, helps me to embrace a mobilized sense of community. I am always thankful to stand in solidarity with other climate activists and for those who organize these marches. I’d like to thank 350 Bay Area and my friend Shoshana Howard with California Students Against Fracking for her part in helping organize the march, and for encouraging me to continue my writing.

In all I was impressed and inspired by the thousands of people informed about pressing issues concerning the safety of our environment. I was encouraged to continue to seek out solutions to the problems diminishing our chances of a vibrant future. In doing so, I hope to continue collaborating with the leaders of today and tomorrow, as I see these alliances to be essential in fortifying a more socially and environmentally just world. Keep marching for real leadership, real solutions, real answers to necessary questions and we will eventually arrive at our shared promise land.

In Solidarity,
Kad Smith

 

Four Books to Read from a Social Justice Devotee

Since I graduated I've had the opportunity to actually do quite a bit of reading that I personally am interested in.  2014 was my most well read year and I'm taking it upon myself to continue that trend. I also intend to pay it forward (as I encourage all of my allies to do as well). I've compiled a quick list of four Books that I would highly recommend you check out – if you haven't already. 

Soledad Brother by George Jackson:

I actually read this book when I was 17 but recently revisited it at the age of 22. It's comprised of hundreds of prison letters from the not-so-renown yet revolutionary, Black Panther, George Jackson. Jackson spent most of his life behind bars after the age of 17 and was a brilliantly self-educated man who really possessed eye-opening reflections on systems of power, issues of class, and ideas on how to spark the revolution of the oppressed. As a prisoner he was able to uniquely unify people of diverse backgrounds within the prison walls, against a "shared oppressor." He was killed in San Quentin after being accused of starting a riot, although much uncertainty still exists around the factual evidence of these claims. This book essentially changed my life, my idea of race relations in the US, and helped prompt long-term career goals. While it's set in the 60's and early 70's it is very much so a timeless piece of work. I recommend it for any freedom fighter, across any ethnic background, but especially for young people of color.

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Moral Politics by George Lakoff 

I'm absolutely fascinated by this book as of late. In fairness to you all, I've only covered about half of it, but I still feel compelled to share. It is essentially an empirical study of the way our moral ideology shapes our political beliefs. Through the use of cognitive science, Lakoff implores readers to reflect on the connection between moral language, views of the family structure, and our political directives. Instead of prescribing ideas about how we should arrive at moral & political associations, he attempts to define how we actually do. It can be a bit of a dull read at times, so don't try to read it right before bed, but I promise you – if you're into politics and psychology this is a great book. It has uniquely given me a fresh sense of respect for some conservative ideology as well, of which I for one am very thankful to have!   

Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton

While I'd hope by now that most of us have been exposed to the literary genius of Huey P, the fact remains that probably isn't the case. Again, I revisited this book in 2014 after reading it in 2012. It's an amazing autobiography of the brilliant Huey P Newton up until his life in the earlier 70's. The main premise of the book follows the direction of the title, constantly reminding the reader that revolution can only be feasible if we are willing to risk our lives to achieve it. Newtown dedicated his life to revolution for the people, under that very premise. All Things considered, I've found myself at odds with some of Huey P's philosophical views at times when reading this, but for the most part it is very well written.  it really chronicles the thinking behind the formation of the Black Panther Party, the consciousness that Newtown possessed and an inside view of how he spent his time both as a leader of the public in the streets and a leader for those behind bars. Long live Huey P! 

Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph: 

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You're probably starting to notice a trend about the particular people I've been reading about, but if not, most of these titles follows the lives of former Black Panthers (with the exception of Lakoff who resides in the land of academia). I am tremendously inspired by what the Panthers were able to accomplish nationally, their history of developing resiliency in the Bay Area community, and especially fascinated with the resistance they were met with from our government. If you haven't come across this already, I'd encourage checking out the COINTELPRO files of the FBI about the programs they launched to disrupt the potential successes of the Panthers nationwide.
This final title is a little less heavy relative to those by Jackson and Newton. It follows the life of a Black Panther, Jamal Joseph. Unlike the other two listed – Joseph is still alive today. Joseph was once a part of the Panther 21, along with Afeni Shakur, the mother of rap legend Tupac Shakur (it was interesting to read about his relationship to Tupac who was his godson).  In his autobiography, he tells a story of being a frustrated Black youth, how he joined the party, unveils instances of betrayal within the party, and paints a beautiful picture of rediscovery from his time spent in prison. He is most recently a professor at the University of Columbia where he teaches about the Theatrical Arts. My good ally from Richmond, Sergio Solis, put me up on this book and I am forever thankful that I got the chance to read it for the first time in 2014! 

I hope this provides you all with some new titles that you haven't been exposed to but may now go look into. I'll try to make a habit of doing this bi-weekly, as I have a ton of books that have definitely helped me to develop my own voice, perspective, and visions for a sustainable future. I feel indebted to the authors of these literary works and feel that I can only repay them by increasing awareness about the experiences I've had whilst reading their texts. 

In solidarity, 

Kad

Barack Obama as the Cultural Icon "Barry O"

In light of recent events I've been spending a considerable amount of my idle time reflecting on my respect and support for President Barack Obama. Obama, the 44th President of the United States has begun his sixth year as the president. In this time the POTUS has faced a fair amount of criticism from just about everyone in our country (myself included), ranging from the far right to the far left. Through this all he's maintained his cool, established himself as a cunning politician and truly challenged himself to have a Presidential impact that will outlast his two terms in office. One of the primary ways Obama has done this is by utilizing his Presidential platform to substantiate himself as a cultural icon. Barack Obama is a cultural icon in ways that Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr, Reagan, and many others before him could only dream of. 

I should add this brief disclaimer: I've notably tried to avoid sharing my praise for Obama in the past, as I often feel people in my network diminish it due to previous (and well documented) criticisms. I never fully have understood this in all honesty, as I believe we can be both critical and supportive of the President at any given time. Nonetheless, Obama being the POTUS almost always becomes a primary topic of political conversation between those I engage. Furthermore, I am constantly asked if my irrepressible respect for Obama is at all related to his Blackness. It's struck me as a weird question before and it's been one that I've had trouble in the past answering in fear of being misunderstood. I now want to answer that officially and have it documented here forever: Yes! I absolutely can see the relationship between my support for Obama and our shared Blackness. 

In being the first Black President of the United States, Obama has cemented himself in an epically important historical position, regardless of how we will eventually look back on his political body of work. In a country built on the backs of Blacks, a Black President is indicative of a pretty monumental culture shift, anyway you choose to look at it. Considering that It wasn't until 2008 that our own congress finally issued an official apology for slavery, the people's willingness to elect a Black President that same year provided a deeply sought after sense of hope, a feeling that "Change" was truly on the horizon and that we were all about to experience some sort of transcendental reformation of American society and culture. Considering the current widespread unease around race relations in America, we are clearly reminded that no one person could ever be held responsible for curing an affliction of systemic racism that we as a nation have historically struggled to eradicate. While many hoped Obama would lead us to answers around tackling racism and bettering racial relations, he has at many times been remarkably underwhelming in his responses to racial issues: Mass Incarceration, naming Institutional racism, and calling out his political counterparts often racist rhetoric. On the other hand, it's been immensely powerful to have Obama (and First Lady Michelle) recognize racism they've experienced in their own lives through telling their personal stories. 

Can we call it how it is? Obama has been an exceptional politician but not a revolutionary civil rights leader. He's often reserved chances to shape the national discourse around race and racism (especially at structural levels) in hopes of not losing face amongst easily uncomfortable and privileged constituents. As my comrade Albrey Brown has told me in the past, "A lot of people hoped Barack Obama would be Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr after he was elected but he's just not that. They are forgetting he entered the world of politics because he knew he could be a great politician. To some extent, playing the position he does in the political arena he's in, continues to prevent him from being a truly great civil rights leader, comparable to the likes of Malcolm X or Dr.King." For the most part, I frustratingly understand and agree with that view. The USA still isn't ready for a President with the "radical" views of Malcolm X or even Martin Luther King Jr (the Dr.King we DON'T learn about in our schools). Much how Tupac Shakur rapped "And although it seems heaven sent, we ain't ready to see a Black President", this is somewhat true. When he rapped that, I believe he was thinking of a Malcolm X or Huey P Newton esque figure – and not a political chess player like Obama. America has proved twice over now that it is indeed ready for "a Barack Obama" but that is indeed an altogether different conversation about what type of Blackness is accepted and what is still  gravely feared amongst the majority. Let's just say, I'd be willing to bet it's strategic that Barack Obama hasn't had anything close to a beard or an Afro in his six years as President. 

One thing I know I will never forget is the feeling in my gut as tears were shed intergenerationally, across the ethnic spectrum, while President Obama was sworn in on January 1st, 2009. The image of my grandmother's face on that day is one I hope to never have displaced from my memory bank. As she cried tears of joy, she reflected on her own childhood in a pre-WWII Texas, where she would pick cotton (YES PICK COTTON – in the 1930's) just to help her family survive as a very young child. As tears slid down her cheeks, she revealed to me both the literal and figurative scars that she had received from her experiences as a Black Woman in an overtly racist society. In Obama's election, she and many others found a reinvigorated sense of hope for not only Black Americans but ALL Americans. Obama's ability to make it to the highest political position, as a Black man, served as a true testament to the realm of possibility in America. While having a Black President in office will obviously not solve the colossal issue of institutional racism – it has brought a Black man into the homes of people who've never been around or interacted with Black people (yes, this still occurs in many parts of America). We also have to consider that while Obama is an extraordinary man, we must be extremely careful in sanctifying him as being an "exceptional Black man." In doing so we risk losing the chance to humanize him and to encourage people to challenge their stereotypes around Black people and Blackness. Rather than being looked at as apart of what Black people have contributed to America, he then becomes looked at as an outlier or an exception. That is a disservice to Obama and millions of African Americans everywhere.

We can't talk about Obama's cultural impact without acknowledging just how damn cool he is. I say this in complete seriousness. As significant as it is for our President to serve as the leader of the Executive branch, the President is also tasked with representing the American public as our Chief Representative and Head of State. Obama has done this with remarkable class and dignity. His calm demeanor and coolness are akin. He's the first president to say he is in support of Marriage Equality in US history (a huge statement to simply make considering his platform) and he's without a doubt the "hippest" and "coolest"  president our television screens have seen since John F Kennedy. John F Kennedy's public persona and legacy of "coolness" has perhaps outlived his Presidential accomplishments amongst those who casually refer to him in our reflection. I expect Obama's public persona to reflect that of a cultural icon and he will be glamorized beyond measure in the years following his time in office. 

I don't think it's a stretch to say Obama's "coolness" stems from his blackness as well. In a time where popular culture is largely dictated by an increasingly black entertainment sphere, Obama's pop culture references are reflective of that. We live in a country where popular culture dictates so much of how we experience the world daily and Obama has done an astonishing job of shaping his public persona through clever pop culture references and appearances. Look no further than this clip: the President of the United States confidently shouting out Young Jeezy, a very renown rapper, who has found success like Jay-Z in their abilities to allegorically bring "the streets" to mainstream America's households (Obama is also friends with Jay-Z, who Fox News has previously characterized as a "Former Crack Dealer"): 

Reflecting on all of that, I'd be a fool to deny the identity politics at play in regards to my initial and longstanding support for Obama.  It's pretty similar to the same way that our largely Christian country has had a consistent track record of electing Protestant presidents. I feel no shame now in admitting my support based on huge parts of my identity, a Black Man, who also happens to be intrigued by our popular culture phenomenon. I would however be very ashamed and embarrassed to say so, if the sole reason of my support was due to Obama's Blackness or his cool public image. That would make me just as naive as the individuals who cast doubt on every political move he makes, question his legitimacy as a natural born citizen, liken him to a monkey, due to what I would infer is related to unease of a Black Man holding our nation's highest political position. While I don't believe the color of Obama's skin should be a sole driving factor in why one lends their support, it'd be very unrealistic to say it hasn't played a sizeable part in how he's been received as the President – whether you love him or hate him. In fact, one could assert that the extent of degradation which Obama has endured as President is unlike that of any previous president, uniquely because of his prescribed identity as an African American man. We've never had to live in a country where the POTUS is referred to as a Nigger (through direct or implied diction) by the people that he's been elected to represent and serve the collective interests of.  

In thinking of Obama as the captain steering our American vessel,  I am reminded of a recent rap lyric from the socially astute J.Cole, who recalls Obama's entrance into the presidency in his recent song Be Free. In reflecting on the world around him Cole raps, "They let a brother steer the ship but they aint tell him that the ship was sinking." That line is extremely beautiful to me as it really vocalizes where my support for Obama has truly been questioned and tested. As a cultural symbol, I've appreciated Obama for the aforementioned reasons. But throughout his presidential tenure, I've had to repeatedly contextualize Obama's accomplishments and failures due to the time upon which he entered office. I'd say he's done a pretty good job considering the economy he inherited and the congress he's had to work with. As much as I'd like to elaborate on the successes of Obama, I think that calls for a separate piece altogether.  If you want a brief reminder you can find some of his accomplishments here.

I'm slowly but surely becoming an unapologetic apologist for what Obama represents in our nation's history. I'll leave it the political pundits to bicker over what he's "actually" accomplished through his executive position and policy efforts. Presidential reputation morphs along with the Zeitgeist. How we think of Obama now will surely be different in twenty, thirty, and fifty years.  For now: I'm content in just appreciating the uniqueness of my guy Barry O. He's truly a President unlike any other. Ball on Barry O, Ball on!

A Sense of Self & My Low-Income / Black Privilege

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to attend a workshop at Oakland's Compasspoint, an organization dedicated to helping nonprofit organizations and their employees develop practices and utilize tools designed to help them best serve their respective communities. The workshop I participated in focused on "Communicating Across Differences" and explained why "Power, Privilege, and Culture" matter within the workplace and beyond. 

Covering a range of topics, there were a few concepts that I'd like to highlight now in an attempt to pay forward the perspective I gained. These concepts really stimulated my mind in regards to not only my work within my organization but also within the community I inhabit. Exploring the juxtaposition of competitive versus collaborative communication techniques, I was reminded of my educational experience, both in the past and present. In deconstructing competitive communication, we analyzed how it often results in the idea that there is one right answer, how it's highly centered around debating, and promotes an adversarial style of dialogue. As a young man with dreams of being an attorney one day, I can understand how having a grasp of this style of communication will indeed be beneficial to my work in the future. In my reflection, I revisited the days of my childhood experience at Black Pine Circle, where learning through a Socratic method discussion often felt very competitive in nature. None the less, the Socratic method sharpened my ability to articulate my ideas concisely and enabled me to logically break down opposing viewpoints. When contrasted with a collaborative communication style, competitive communication seems to me to be much less fluid and much more rigid within a team environment. Collaborative communication promotes much less of a dichotomous resolution structure in discussion (without making joint resolution any less paramount), it seeks to build understanding between conversationalists and at the core it promotes cohesion in working towards identified mutual goals between participants. In my reflection of this style of communication, I am reminded of my admiration for the popular education methodology (sparked primarily by my training as a Roots of Success Curriculum Facilitator), upon which I hope to build upon in settings where I am working with a diverse group as a co-educator or a conversation leader. Without diverging into too much detail about popular education, I would encourage anyone unfamiliar with this style of education to visit this pretty comprehensive definition here. In a time of social turmoil and in hoping to transform our society from its oppressive nature, I believe it to be imperative that we fundamentally seek to employ a popular education methodology in a systematically efficient manner.

What really got me excited: how these types of communication refreshed my prior internal deliberation over my sense of self within society. In one of the best courses I took at USF – Asian American Philosophy with Professor David Kim – I was exposed to the ideologies of a dualistic sense of self and a correlative sense of self within a society. In western cultures, there is a long history of the dualistic sense of self being prevalently adopted within our social structure. This notion (as I recall) perpetuates a society where the individual is constantly tasked with building "bridges" to others within the society based on their own sense of self. That is to say, using ones own identified individual characteristics to determine a likeness amongst others, which then allows one to establish appropriate social connections. It's a rather abstract concept that I'm struggling to describe even now. Woefully, I wish I could do it more poetic justice. Inversely, a correlative sense of self would be to acknowledge the innate bridges that already exist between members of a society and being tasked to identify what exactly it is that makes us different. For me this was an extremely nourishing notion, as it helped me to debunk the "Us vs. Them" mentality that I have long felt plagues our society. It helped me arrive at the conclusion that as United States Citizens, there is so much more that makes us alike than there is that makes us different. While those differences should be accepted, acknowledged and honored, that which connects us is truly a foundational bond that we should cherish in regards to our efforts of future social progress and establishing true social equity for our collective whole. Again, I am struggling to illustratively describe these ideas but I'm giddy as I hope to one day do so with suitable precision. 

Moving forward, I want to discuss a component of the workshop that encouraged us as participants to think about Privilege and why it matters within the workplace. Privilege within a social context establishes that some groups of a society have unearned advantages relative to others. Discussing privilege is aptly crucial considering the unfolding events highlighting racial injustice across the country. I hope by now that we've all at least somewhat have been exposed to the idea of white privilege (I'm making a broad assumption here) in some shape or form. Other types of privilege we might identify in the United States: male privilege, heterosexual privilege, socio-economic privilege, and Christian privilege (within our historically Christian nation) to name a few. As a young Black man who grew up in a low-income household, societally, one could argue I have been oppressed through my blackness and socio-economic background. That said, I most certainly still indeed benefit from male privilege within our current social framework. I do not have to worry about the plight of patriarchy in the same way that a Black, Latina, Asian or even a White female has to. I do not fear walking down the streets and being raped or constantly sexually harassed. Furthermore, as a heterosexual male, I can freely love someone and not be questioned as to why. I can date freely and not be admonished as some sort of sexual deviant. Due to my cisgendered and heterosexual identities, I have advantages in regards to my social mobility, that in essence are privileges bestowed upon me by no merit of my own.  

In the workshop, we were asked to go to different sides of the room and to look at privilege from a lense that was particularly relevant to us in the workplace or within or larger work in general. I struggled with choosing this because I'm increasingly starting to look at privilege in what I think is an unintended way of understanding it. I am hoping that ANYONE who reads this will provide me with critical feedback on my developing ideas, especially as they have become more core to my view of the world around me. Two sides of the room in essence prompted us to: identify the privilege you have in the workplace and discuss what that means. Another side requested that we identify the lack of privilege we have and what that absence of privilege feels like. Due to the nature of societal privilege, I aligned myself with the side hoping to discuss the lack of privilege and how that feels but I felt very torn about doing so. 

While I have a rudimentary understanding of how power and oppression works in this society, I am increasingly thinking of  my existence of oppression as in fact, a privilege. Before you jump out of your seats upset with me and cursing your screens please let me explain. My Blackness, which puts me within a historically oppressed group, has truly provided me with integral character strengths that promote a unique world view only available to this prescribed identity. That is to say: through being a Black male, I have been confronted with internalized and institutionalized racism all my life and through this I've gained an immensely enriched world view. Through this worldview I can see how systems of structural power work clearly through my personal experience, I have developed a resiliency that those of racial privilege have not had the opportunity to do so, and I am able to critically think about issues that will lead us into a transformative future. By no merit of my own and solely through my blackness, I have been blessed with perspective that might be light years away from a populace of middle class segregated white individuals. In the same vein, my background in a disenfranchised and relatively low-income family has taught me that there is no real value in a monetary dollar. My economic background has illuminated the importance of experiences and not finances. I have embraced an accentuated value of determining my success outside of a fiscal sense, and done so at a hyper-accelerated rate. My socio-economic background has freed me from the brainwashing of our contemporary consumer culture. By no merit of my own and solely through the absence of wealth in my life, I am liberated from the oppression of capitalistic thinking. I am also aware of the unsustainable nature of such an economic system and can fundamentally ask tough questions to challenge capitalism through drawing from my own life narrative. So I ask, while socially I can identify with groups that have been historically oppressed, is the perspective I've earned not a privilege of that oppression? If not, what is it? For me, it relates to a train of thought that I was briefly exposed to via Liberation Theology. While I'm not devoutly religious, in a symbolic sense, I commend the views of Jesus Christ atop the mountains as he listed out the beatitudes. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ talks about how "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" and "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." I don't believe you have to be religious at all to see the beauty in this perspective and to see the enlightenment that might occur in accepting such an interpretation of what is learned through the oppressed plight. 

Inversely, as a male and specifically a heterosexual one, I do not often have to question the privilege I have due to these identities. I am not constantly reminded of these privileges, if at all. In this sense, I actually have to step outside of my own identity to see the oppressive forces at work that allow me these privileges. The process in finding truth this way is so much harder and requires aide from others. So while in a social sense I can clearly understand my privilege, internally, I feel disconnected from truly discovering my place in aiding the liberation of these oppressed groups. I can only imagine the discomfort a White, cisgendered, heterosexual, Christian male must feel when confronted with their privilege and the necessity to think transformatively. I imagine it in ones adulthood to almost be world shattering. Perhaps I'm wacky and perhaps I'm thinking about this all too much, but boy, it's an enriching process in doing so. 

Thanks to the good folks at Compasspoint for sparking this article and internal cogitation. I feel as if I am growing already. 

Godspeed yall. 

Introspection – A Remedy for the "20-Something" yr-olds Existential Crisis

What am I doing? Who am I? Why do I feel so small, so insignificant, so unaccomplished? What's next for me? What's my purpose here? 

These are questions that I have been asking myself quite often in the last year or so. Sometimes I prompt myself with these questions in the early hours of the night when I am sleep deprived, frustrated with my day, or even disappointed in myself. At other times they occur during a mindless task at work, one that allows for my conscious to drift off into the realm of existential questioning. The onset of this line of questioning was the inception of what formerly felt like an existential crisis, only recently morphing into the stimulus of confidence that I need to stay focused in my maturation. 

These questions first began towards the end of my collegiate years. For me, college was a very busy time. Not only did I have my schoolwork to attend to but I also worked two jobs to support myself through covering my rent and the remainder of my tuition (uncovered by my financial aid rewards). Many of my family members and friends would wonder how I was able to work so often and keep up with my scholarly requirements at the same time. My grandmother would constantly ask me if I was stressed out, expecting me to collapse at any moment. Surprisingly, I found a potent sense of comfort in my routine as a student-worker. I didn't have to face the dreaded questions of what the future had in store for me. I didn't have to think about my place in a world that I had barely even been exposed to. Instead, I got through each day as if the day stood alone in some sort of singular sense. Each day was it's own mission and every night was an opportunity to reflect on the day's accomplishments. 

On graduation day, December 13th, 2013,  I sadly said goodbye to the sense of mental stability that I had discovered as a student employee. Leading up to my graduation, people kept asking me, "what's next?" and my answers usually followed the lines of, "Well I guess I'll find a job, get ready for law school, pay off my loans." On the exterior I had all the signs and characteristics of an ambitious young man. On the interior, I was scared, insecure about my abilities, and searching for some sort of truth that could be my guiding beacon, a lighthouse in my journey from a young man to a "real adult"

I've spent the last year battling the same insecurity I felt after leaving college. These internal questions I've been asking myself for the last year have at times been crippling. They've been defeating, even in moments that I should've accepted as victories. They've even disabled me from truly seeing how blessed I am and from adequately living in the moment. 

I've come to realize over the last few months, the despair I've been experiencing isn't from the questions I've been asking myself. Instead, the angst has been self-ridden due to an unwillingness to actually try to answer the aforementioned questions. The process of answering such questions is definitively the process of introspection. I suppose I've been unwilling to challenge myself in truly contemplating over these fundamentally core questions, not because I didn't know how, but because I had turned to cowardice in not wanting to face answers that might be unbecoming of some idea I had of myself and who I am. In fear of recognizing my own vices, I've denied myself the virtue of prudence and self-knowledge.  

Working through my emotional and mental processes, I may not ever be able to fully answer, "why am I here" or "what is my purpose here" as these are ever evolving questions. The elasticity of such inquiries may be potentially lifelong. What I do know is: through query, I can remind myself of the values I hold core, the beliefs that guide my reactions to worldly situations, reflect on the character strengths that are embedded into my personhood and the skills I've acquired which provide me with the dexterity I need to adapt in this world. I also now understand that there is something beautiful about being uncomfortable in this life that we live. There is a certain brilliance in being endlessly curious about the world around you and knowing that you may never pinpointedly find "your place" in it. 

I share this perspective as I know many of my peers are struggling with these very same questions as I have. I'll tell you that no one else can answer them for you. I'd advise that you try your hardest to not subscribe to anyone elses ideas about who you should be, how you should live, how you should think or what's okay for you to feel. While you may never arrive at some "golden" answer, the value you gain from being introspective is enlightening in a procedural manner. It is not so much the answer that matters, it's the process that leads you to any potential answers which is golden. I am reminded of my 8th grade math teacher, who would constantly reiterate the importance of "showing the work" that led to our answers. I never really liked math but I certainly have a smile on my face thinking about how I've just abstracted a lesson from Algebra, into a real life formula for self guidance.  I encourage you all to not wallow in the self-pity I have over the last year and to really work through any similar questions you've been prompted to reflect over. You may truly begin to find yourself in the process. 

Godspeed yall. 

Thankful for my Blackness: Reflecting on Ferguson and Beyond.

It's been a turbulent week in the wake of the decision rendered to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for his involvement in the killing of the eighteen year old Mike Brown. Across the country, we've seen a growing amount of unrest over what many perceive to be a grave injustice and a manipulation of the legal process we're taught to revere in this country. 

The day the grand jury decision was rendered, I was painfully forced to reflect on the ugly underbelly of the America that has raised me into the young BLACK man that I am. My first emotive response was an embodied sense of anger. An anger that is historically rooted in my community and reminds me of my grandmothers stern voice during my adolescent years,"They will always have it out for you. You're black Kad." As a child, I always struggled to understand who she was talking about when she said "they", who were they?  At that time, I refused to see the world as black and white, as I attended school with mostly white children – who for the most part – had yet to be socialized into viewing my blackness as intrinsically threatening. I now understand my grandmother was not talking about my white classmates or their families but those who stand to benefit from a divided world. They are the corporate oligarchs of both our nation and our globalized economy. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the racism that is so prevalent in our society is primarily a byproduct of a classist economic structure. In fact, I'd rather confidently assert that racism has been intentionally ingrained into our societal fabric and exerted by the authoritative enforcers of our capitalist system as a means to prevent us from a unified struggle against the top-down power struggle we dutifully live under. I think this is exemplified in Martin Luther King Jr's timely death. Make no mistake about it, Martin Luther King Jr was not primarily killed for his efforts to racially integrate our country. Martin Luther King Jr was killed for his launch of the Poor People's Campaign and for his socialist ideas. The sanitized MLK Jr. that we have been exposed to in our schools is all the evidence I need to feel sane and logically sound in stating this. 

Anger aside and redirecting back to my response to the grand jury's decision, my anger eventually morphed into a somewhat indescribable yet gut wrenching sorrow. My sadness was tumultuous, first feeling for the family of Mike Brown, as I imagined the absence of closure that his mother must now deal with. My sadness increasingly expanded as I thought about my little cousins and the next generation of young black faces who will be encouraged by many to think race is no longer a "real issue" in a systemically racist country. My sadness became pitiful, as I contemplated over the psyche's of people who have been brainwashed into thinking that "colorblindness" is a real solution or that what occurred in Ferguson "just simply isn't about race."  You don't have to look much further than the District Attorney Robert McCulloch's complicit behaviour in protecting a white cop from ever seeing trial, instead of asking the tough questions needed to stand up for a posthumously criminalized BLACK Mike Brown to see this was very much about race. Reading the grand jury transcript, I was unsure if McCulloch was acting as Wilson's defense attorney or not. I was 100% sure a black man would of never received this treatment from a prosecuting District Attorney. 

Furthermore, when I had gone through the influx of anger and sorrow, the onset of a very contrary emotion occurred: pride. I thought about what it means to be Black in America, what it means to be apart of the Black diaspora, and what I could do to change this country which is so clearly in need of transformative thinking. Being Black in America is to be subjected to injustice and inequity solely on the basis of our skin and heritage. That said, our blackness is inextricably linked to our quintessentially intrinsic ability to develop personal and communal resilience. Our blackness allows for us to find strength through our struggles. Our blackness is ironically an illuminating beacon of hope for all oppressed peoples across the world. Both the progress and stagnation of Black America are highly emblematic of how far America as a nation has come and how far we still have to go. 

Anger, sorrow, and pride were the three main emotions that I personally felt over this particular incident. I can only imagine what others are going through. Others who unlike myself, have felt the impact of racism in harsher, more overt, and more life threatening ways. In Oakland at the recent protests, I caught a glimpse of these emotional sentiments in others on Tuesday night. In many people's faces, I saw the same emotions I had and have been feeling, some of which were more vehement in their expression. I saw people come together to empathize with one another, to stand in solidarity and to collectively amplify each other's voices. I also saw opportunists out and about: in the form of anarchists who had no substantial attachment to the issue at hand but saw it as a potential outlet for their own frustrations. These are the individuals lighting trash cans on fire, looting stores, vandalizing property, and more. They come in all racial backgrounds (but a lot of them appeared to be NON BLACK people) and their actions unfortunately represent an insensitivity and callous disregard for the seriousness of protesting this particular threat to Black livelihood in America. While I understand their desire to seek an outlet for what I'm pretty sure is warranted frustration, It's counter intuitive and feeds into the narrative that mass media seeks to perpetuate. It is a historical narrative that seeks to identify: protesting and rioting as synonymous (which we know it is NOT), Black people needing disproportionate policing, and that this particular response is less about police misconduct and police oppression of Black Americans and more about a chaos hungry contingent getting a free pass to be chaotic. 

I am proud of my peers and my community members who have stepped up and shared their perspective on the issue at hand. I myself feel troubled in identifying what solutions will come out of this – as I understand the peeling of layers will only lead to the huge social, political, and economic disaster of our fundamentally capitalist country.  I know that we can honor Mike Brown by having the uncomfortable conversations about contemporary race relations in this country. I believe that we can innovatively use technology and social networking, to make many more people aware of the existing pervasiveness of racism in our social, economic, and institutional blueprints. I hope that we can also look in the mirror and start to concretely acknowledge the privileges we have. We must identify the intricate relationship of those privileges & the continued oppression of our fellow Americans (and global citizens) if we ever hope to rampantly increase the progress needed for the future stability of our country. In America, we have the fortune of knowing that we have a fair amount of choices in responding to injustice. What will you choose to do? The truth is, the buck stops with me and you. What will you do for the betterment of this country, your children (already here or unborn)? How will you build upon the rich history of those who stood up for justice in the past and ensure that they did not do so in vain? I can only give the advice that I've accepted myself: Speak up and have your voice heard. It actually matters. 

Godspeed y'all.

 

Recognizing "Our Power"

“Our Power” was the cornerstone of my cross country voyage on the People’s Climate Train and march in New York City. “Our Power” is coined by the Climate Justice Alliance and focuses on empowering local living communities in just transitions and a radical shift from extreme energy use and dependence. More philosophically, Our Power represents the power which we as a people have. In my three mile march during the people’s climate demonstration, that power was exemplified. A moment of silence at 12:58pm in midtown New York City would have been unfathomable for me, prior to participating in that very act. I saw Our Power in people’s ability to come together in solidarity, to tell our stories, and to hold our world leaders accountable for the power we have given them.

The tide of the climate justice movement is indeed turning. As the global crisis increases, there is a heightened focus on communities at the “frontline” of the rising threat. These communities must be distinctly proactive in planning adaptation strategies, while concurrently the broader movement can focus on promoting climate resiliency plans. These frontline communities, interestingly enough, parallel those which have been historically marginalized – low-income, minority and indigenous. Throughout my entire experience, this recurring theme to hoist up frontline communities to the forefront of this movement resulted in conversations about systemic oppression, racism, classism, and fundamental challenges to the divisive nature of capitalism. In this sense, I can now see how the climate justice movement is becoming a global catalyst for an intersectional anti-oppression revolution.

Our Power has purpose in my life going forward. I feel a tremendous sense of duty, responsibility, and reinforced dedication to continue work within the environmental justice movement. I also realize that our work as an organization, as members of the Berkeley and East Bay community, and as individuals, must consistently be taken to the next level. While we are fortunate to be aware of the impending climate crisis, we must continue to spread and raise consciousness about climate change in our communities – across cultural and socio-economic lines. Our Power is the power of storytelling. In telling my own story, how I got involved in this work with the Ecology Center, how my work has been personally transformative, and how it has helped me find my place in this movement, I was able to connect with an eclectic alliance of people from across the world. To feel valued, to be heard, and to be honored as a part of a broad coalition fighting for climate justice is integral to making the broader movement welcoming to a younger, more diverse generation of climate activists. From my experience throughout the people’s climate train and demonstration activities, it is clear to me that we must prioritize broader inclusion and empowerment if we hope to accelerate the impact of our efforts.

Our Power is our movement. I would implore my colleagues, our allies, and our members to aid in perpetuating this next phase. In whatever way we can aid marginalized communities in having their voice heard, we should be doing so. In whatever way we can embolden people to feel comfortable telling their stories, as it relates to the climate crisis, we should make space for that. That is an actionable task – one that I know we will grow to prioritize in the coming days, months, and years. The “frontline” of the climate crisis is ever-increasing – and it will take solidarity and universal support to insulate our planet from a proliferated threat.

One Love,

Kad

Why I support Measure D: The Berkeley Soda Tax

As seen in the Berkeley Times. 

In recent weeks, while canvassing the streets of District 2 for the YES on D campaign, I’ve felt the embrace of my community. From random high-fives (in response to my “Berkeley vs. Big Soda” tee-shirt) to discussions of the frustrations community members feel about money disrupting our political process, people are holding Big Soda accountable for their poison, sugary-sweetened products linked to a public health problem.

As a 23-year-old Berkeley resident, my support for measure D is two-fold, both personal and political. I watched my grandmother suffer from diabetes while raising me and now fear for the younger generation of my African-American family. One-in-two African American kids born after 2000 are predicted to develop diabetes in their lives and soda is the No. 1 added source of sugar in our American diets.

Working with the campaign, I’ve seen outside interests (especially the American Beverage Association) attempt to demonize a measure that will fund programs that promote nutrition and community wellness. Personally, it repulses me. Their saturation campaign strategy is a threat to the democratic process we revere in this country. And what we’re now experiencing is merely what Big Soda is doing at the local level.

I implore my fellow Berkeley youth, citizens, and leaders to educate themselves about this issue. Which side of history do you want to be on? Would you rather pass the first soda tax in the United States and in so doing hold Big Soda accountable for their products? Or would you rather be among those who have been duped by the smokescreen of corporate lies and deceptions, and stay in denial about the dangers of too much sugar.

On November 4, Vote YES on Measure D. Together we can beat Big Soda!

Kad Smith