• Gather, several religious congregations have beckoned, for reconciliation, for healing, for hope. Though I would take comfort from being with others who are similarly dismayed by Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, I will not – cannot – attend. Not because I am otherwise engaged. But because I refuse to be reconciled or to heal.

    Democrats have tried making nice with Republicans. The result is an even more divided electorate, riven by differences in worldview that I am not willing or able to paper over. Last night’s election is evidence to me not of a need to listen to one another or of a need to acknowledge the validity of another world view. I have turned to Tocqueville, Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown for counsel.

    French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed the United States in 1831. The child of nobles who had survived the French Revolution, Tocqueville wondered how a democratic government worked. He picked up on a potentially fatal flaw in the system. The “majority,” he noted “exercise a prodigious actual authority” that had the potential to ignore “the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path. This state of things is harmful in itself and dangerous for the future” (Democracy in America, vol. 1, ch. 15).

    Faced with the power of such a majority in 1849 as the nation invaded Mexico and a majority of voters persisted in upholding legalized slavery, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule […] not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.” Why, if the majority favors injustice, “[m]ust the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?”

    Thoreau’s essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” advised readers to heed their consciences. He refused to pay taxes, to resist not with violence but with the power of the pocket. To what did he owe allegiance? His conscience. He knew what he thought was right, and he would not betray it. This is a dangerous principle, one that can be used to justify most any atrocious actions, but, in Thoreau’s case, his motives and methods inspired many who would go on to lead their nations to independence, from Mohandas K. Gandhi in India to Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

    The words of William Lloyd Garrison, the great Abolitionist and newspaper publisher, also inspire me: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard” (The Liberator, 1, Jan. 1, 1831).

    A coincidence that a curator recently unearthed and identified a marble bust of John Brown? I think not. A decade after Thoreau published his essay on civil disobedience, Brown and a band of extremists raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in a bid to arm slaves and end human bondage in this country. Before he was hanged December 2, 1859, months before the outbreak of the Civil War, he allowed a sculptor from Boston to measure his face. The bust was unveiled in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

    I do not espouse violence. But I will not sit by as Democrats make nice, yet again. I am motivated by the words and actions of my American forbears as I try to imagine how I can participate in American democracy without appearing to support the revocation of hard-won civil rights. I will never turn my back on equality. I will never bow to the will of a majority that sanctions racism, misogyny, nativism, and ignorance.

    N.B.: My daughter remarks that I have only drawn on the thoughts and words of “dead white men.” My point: one does not need to be female or be of color to have a corner on righteousness. These issues belong to all of us. And in solidarity, we are defiant and demand justice and fairness for all.

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  • I met with a student yesterday before class who left me feeling at a loss.  I am struggling, yet again, to set realistic expectations when it comes to writing.

    The student came to me wanting to make sure he understood what I was asking in an upcoming essay.  After we had worked together to clarify and develop a strategy to complete the assignment, we had a few minutes to talk.  “Who are you?”  I asked.  “I mean, when you’re not at school, what’s your life like?”

    Like so many at UMass Boston, the student is “non-traditional.” He’s probably in his forties. Emigrated as a teen to Cape Verde from Angola with his parents. Married and had two children in Cape Verde, came to the US, served in the military, brought his wife and kids over, has worked in law enforcement for decades. He puts in 70 hours a week in his job and has one child in a Boston Public “exam” school (competitive entrance) and the other in a private school. He knows five languages; his spoken and written English are rough. Unlike many I teach, he  is an incisive thinker and is unfailingly prepared when he is in class. And he is always in class. When I asked him what “year” he is, he responded by telling me he doesn’t think in terms of “years.” He thinks in terms of courses. He has eight courses left until he earns his undergraduate degree. Taking two courses a semester, he will be on track to graduate in the next couple of years.

    After the student left my office, I began to second-guess myself.  I give lots of feedback to students on even short assignments. I ask them to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, verb tenses, and word choice.  I expect them to proof read, and if they don’t, I ask them to revise and resubmit. I insist students move from summary to abstract analysis, and I ask them to cite with precision. Am I asking too much? How would I fare were I working more than full time, raising children, and commuting to a campus to earn a degree?

    These questions woke me at 4 A.M.  I was filled with a sense of overwhelming shame as I imagined how hard many (but not all) of my students are trying to get ahead. I don’t want to be condescending. I don’t want to lower expectations to the point that students aren’t making genuine progress on writing, either, which I continue to believe essential. Why essential?  If students can’t analyze text, can’t formulate actual thoughts in writing, then how well can they handle bank loans, elections, job applications? Don’t these students deserve to be taught how to express themselves eloquently? Should the ability to craft a sentence belong only to the American elite?

    Teaching writing takes time. Learning to write takes time. What to do when students’ most precious possession is time?

    More questions than answers this morning.

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  • Perhaps you missed this story.  A 21-year-old Syrian “man” shot his 45-year-old mother in the head with a rifle and killed her.  He was involved with ISIL, the Muslim terrorist organization. She wanted the two of them to leave the Syrian town of Raqqa, fearing for his safety as US-led troops neared the ISIL stronghold.  He told ISIL leaders of his mother’s request.  They insisted he publicly execute her.  He complied.

    I was telling one of my kids about the execution this weekend, and he asked a simple question. Don’t most world religions command followers to honor their parents?  I told him I thought this to be the case, but I didn’t know about Islam, in particular.

    Lucky for me, we had the good fortune Saturday morning to be invited to a Turkish friend’s home for breakfast.  As we passed plates of delicious Turkish pastries, cheese, and olives around the table, I asked our hosts what the Qur’an and Hadith had to say about relationships between parents and children.  The story goes, my hosts and their other guests told me, that the first three times Muhammed was asked this, the Prophet insisted that followers obey their mothers.  The fourth time, they explained, Muhammed included fathers in the mix.

    I pursued this line of inquiry over email with my host and received from her a comprehensive compilation of suras from the Qur’an and quotes attributed to Muhammed from the Hadiths, all having to do with parenthood.  The teachings demand that children respect their parents.  Even when parents are “infidels” who don’t follow the teachings of Islam, they are to be honored.  My host included the following Hadith, whose meaning could not be more clear:

    It was narrated from Mu’awiyah bin Jahimah As-Sulami, that Jahimah came to the Prophet (PBUH) and said, “O Messenger of Allah! I want to go out and fight (in Jihad) and I have come to ask your advice.” He said, “Do you have a mother?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “Then stay with her, for Paradise is beneath her feet.” (The Book of Jihad, 6)

    “Jihad,” my host explained, can be internal, metaphorical, a struggle with the self to do right — not just an external military battle or fight.  In any case, she wrote, the first responsibility is to care for the mother.

    Though I understand a bit better Islam’s guidance on parent-child relationships, I can’t fathom how a believer, someone claiming to be shaped by God’s word, could shoot his mother in the head.  I felt similarly when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and, more recently, when an apparently observant group danced at a wedding and celebrated the burning of a Palestinian toddler.

    I haven’t anything profound to offer, here.  I was relieved to read verses condemning the mother’s killing.  What will it take to get extremists of all stripes to invoke scripture to impose basic rules governing decency?  I don’t intend my question as a naive exercise in hand-wringing.  I’m serious.

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  • We meet every month or two.  We sit around a long table, sometimes in a dark-paneled room in the church downtown where my temple is located, sometimes in a brightly lit conference room in a neighborhood cultural center.  We are middle-aged, Reform Jews.  We are young, ritually observant, Turkish Muslims.  We kvell over babies and share baked treats.  Our conversations focus on favorite passages from our respective books of scripture, the role music plays in our worship services, the “bad women” in our faith traditions, and so on.  We volunteer a few times a year at a food bank or soup kitchen.  We call ourselves “Sisters in Spirit.”

    Our topic this past Sunday was Jewish and Muslim doctrine concerning the environment. Several Sisters had prepared to lead the discussion.  The ten of us never got anywhere near Muslim and Jewish perspectives on animal rights or ecological justice.

    In the wake of the Daesh attacks in Paris, at services and over email, we Jewish Sisters had been worrying about our Muslim Sisters.  At services and over email, we wondered if it would OK to open the meeting by asking “Are you OK?”  We didn’t want to put anyone on the spot. We needn’t have worried.  One after another, our Muslim Sisters told stories of verbal abuse and feelings ranging from isolation to fear.

    One Sister — dark, sweeping eyebrows punctuating a face encircled by a satiny, fuchsia head scarf — described sitting outside in the sun, eating lunch at a Whole Foods market Monday after the Paris attacks.  A man approached her.  He called her an “Arab,” then berated her loudly for covering her head and allying herself with terrorists.  His words, though offensive, didn’t really bother her, she said, since the man seemed “kinda crazy.”  It broke her heart, meanwhile, that her fellow sun seekers heard the words but said and did nothing.  She worried that she’ll be attacked if she drives badly or jaywalks.  She’d heard stories from other women in headscarves being shoved towards oncoming T trains.

    Another Sister — sparkly eyes behind rimless glasses, creamy scarf surrounding a delicate face — fed a toddler perched on her lap.  On Tuesday after the Paris attacks, she went to the weekly parent support group she’s been attending  for more than two years.  She is the only Muslim in the group.  She spoke at the beginning of the meeting, apologizing on behalf of all Muslims everywhere for the actions of a handful of terrorists, explaining that violence in the name of God has no part of the religion she practices.  She wanted someone to tell her that her apology was unnecessary.  She hoped someone might say that they all already knew this about her. But no one said a word. Worse, no one met her gaze.

    A third in the group spoke.  New to Boston and to our group, my Sister — a tall woman whose patterned scarf was pinned expertly to frame her even-featured face — talked about enrolling her daughter in first grade. The classroom teacher in her daughter’s public school is Jewish. She felt the teacher had been reluctant to engage with her, perhaps because of her head scarf. She worried about what this might mean for her daughter’s experiences in the class.  At back to school night, the teacher explained to parents that there would be no birthday celebrations to protect students with food allergies. The teacher said, as a funny aside, that, of course, she really does miss cupcakes.  So, my Sister baked.  She packed one cupcake in a Ziplock bag and wrote a note.  She had heard the teacher missing cupcakes, so she wanted to give her one. No nuts.  The teacher, she said, seemed more comfortable thereafter, looking her in the eye, not “in the head scarf.

    None of these women is from Syria.  None is a refugee.  All are struggling to find ways to connect with Americans who seem primed to view them as scary, other.

    As our conversation continued, we wondered how to identify strategies to diffuse tension and increase acceptance. How to find opportunities to forge common bonds? How to lay the groundwork for hard conversations? How to help one another ask what seem at first to be hard questions but are hard only because they have not  yet been asked? Nothing we came up with was as effective, we decided, as the cupcake, which helped a teacher view a woman in a head scarf as a mother, a parent, and a person.

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  • Two well-written and reasoned pieces responding to Marco Rubio’s assertion that we need more welders and “less” philosophers:

    — one by Scott Timberg in Salon

    — one by Farai Chideya in Five Thirty Eight Politics

    Both question assertions about pay as well as the false opposition between liberal arts and vocational educations.  My favorite bit: a reference to Matthew B. Crawford’s short, smart book, Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.  Crawford (who earned a Ph.D. in phiosophy) argues for the importance of skilled, thoughtful manual workers.

    I was reminded, yesterday, also, of my favorite plumber, who is one of the best problem solvers I’ve ever known.  The guy can fix almost anything.  But that’s not why he’s so talented.  He thinks elegantly, assesses entire systems, and generates solutions that are so ingenious they sometimes make me laugh.

    Rubio and others out to ding the humanities would impress me a whole lot more were they, themselves, able to express with eloquence and inspire.  But for that, they’d probably need — dare I write this — a first-class liberal arts education.

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  • Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio seems to have distilled his education policy during tonight’s debate. “Welders make more money than philosophers,” declared the Florida senator. “We need more welders and less philosophers.”

    If Rubio is serious about education, he shouldn’t draw an artificial line between welders and philosophers. This country will not get stronger by assuming that workers who “do” don’t think…and that those who think don’t “do.”

    Our next president needs to value an education system that values critical thinking as well as practicality. Workers can’t adjust to markets’ demands if they can’t reason.  Neither can they find employment without practical skills.

    Perhaps Rubio’s handlers can teach him a few grammar lessons (when, for instance, to use “less” and when to use “few”) while they help him generate a more sophisticated approach to education, one that doesn’t pander to the current right-wing penchant for humanities bashing. As journalist Fareed Zakaria has written in The Washington Post, Republicans seem to delight in asserting that “[a] liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.” At the same time, Zakaria writes, “[n]o matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.”

    Here’s to an expectation that all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, affirm students’ rights to speak, read, and write clearly.  And here’s a wish for the coming year, when Americans will be choosing a new president: may candidates work for a world where philosophers get paid welders’ wages and where welders are assumed to think as nimbly as philosophers.

     

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  • Two stories caught my eye this morning, both relating to families.  In oneBoston Globe columnist Shirley Leung champions the rights of mothers to return to work the week they give birth.  In the other in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Parkinson in Istanbul and David George-Cosh in Toronto analyze the ways Nilufer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, a drowned, 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy, has gone viral.

    What’s the link between the two pieces?  “We” still haven’t figured out what our responsibilities are to all families: men, women, and children around the world.

    As for Leung’s piece, when will privileged women who work in highly-paid jobs re-frame their choices so that they lobby for the rights of all parents — men, women, rich, poor?  I get that women are judged unfairly when they choose to “go back to work” soon after giving birth, while the decisions and behaviors of their privileged male counterparts receive nary an eyebrow raise. The different standards and treatments deserve scrutiny.  But.  The bigger issue is that they have choices. They have jobs to return to, they can choose when they want to return to work, and, most probably, they can even decide IF they want to return to work.  What doesn’t get said?  They can afford the best possible child care that enables them to leave their infants behind.  To write a piece that does not mention the role privilege plays in women’s choices is to miss the bigger picture…

    …of the picture.  Nilufer Demir — a woman — captured what may turn out to be the single most compelling image of the Syrian refugee crisis: a toddler, face-down on the beach, drowned in his family’s attempt to find safety in the EU.  Several important points, here:

    Until we sidestep nationalism and bring our attention to crises around the world affecting families and young children, we aren’t doing justice to the principles of feminism.

    The photographer Demir answered questions about the photos she took of dead refugees washing up on the beach.  She was asked “as a woman,” how she felt seeing the dead toddler on the beach.  “As a woman?”  Why would anyone assume that a woman’s grief would be any different from a man’s when seeing dead children washing in with the tide?

    Last: why are “we” moved to act when confronted with the image of what “we” consider the most innocent victim, a child?  All refugees are innocent victims.  What has any of these men, women, or children done to deserve the chaos inflicted on them by people who put power, -isms, and money ahead of the wellbeing of families?

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  • A long-time, much loved friend posted a question months ago, which I paraphrase: what do you think about parents who have the resources not to work outside the home and who know, from the get-go, that they will seek full-time employment because they want it?

    My answer today is prompted by a piece I read on Politico.com this morning.  Writer Michelle Cottle criticizes Michelle Obama for  “Leaning Out.” Cottle complains that Obama has wasted her Ivy League education and career as a high-powered lawyer and that when, this week, Obama weighed in on an education system that leaves behind impoverished kids of color — especially impoverished girls — it was too little, too late.  Cottle also criticizes the First Lady for choosing a public role that has emphasized traditionally “feminine” issues such as healthy eating and exercise.  I am sympathetic to the complaint that Obama might have focused on less traditionally feminine topics, but I draw the line at the following: “Turns out,” Cottle writes, “she was serious about that whole “mom-in-chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.”

    With privilege comes personal choice.  People with relatively large amounts of money and power, whether they are men or women, have options that at this point aren’t open to everyone.  They get to choose the work/life balance they wish, and they are often — but not always — able to move into increasingly interesting public work as their children mature.  This ability to lean in and out, in and out, over the course of a long life is precisely, as The New York Times reported, what many women want.  Which way they lean?  Doesn’t have much to do with whether they are “good” parents.

    Michelle Obama, the most privileged woman in America, has had a choice.  As a feminist, I respect her choice to give her daughters the foundation and protection they need growing up in the Klieg-light-glare of the presidency.  I’d have respected her had she chosen to allocate her time and attention differently — to “work outside the home” or to take on something other than vegetables and exercise from her spot in the East Wing.  But I would not have respected her had she ignored the implications for her daughters of her family’s choice to inhabit the White House for eight years and work in politics at the highest level.

    Here’s the thing about having kids: most of them don’t raise themselves.  Some children are relatively easy and uncomplicated.  Others need extra medical and emotional support.  All need attention.

    The relatively wealthy are able to pay others to attend if they don’t choose to have the time to do it, themselves.  They can enroll kids in good day care, pay private school tuition or buy homes in districts where schools have longer hours.  They are also able to make their mortgage or rent payments if one parent chooses not to work or to work part-time.  That the choice should appear to rest solely on the shoulders of women is wrong.  That the choice isn’t available to all parents, all women, is just plain unfair.  Rather than criticizing Michelle Obama — or any other mother, for that matter — for her personal choices regarding work, get out your bullhorn to increase access to the options currently only available to those of relative privilege so that all parents are able to give their children the attention they need.

    This past June, I finished my work days by stopping at a pond for a swim at around 6:00.  One evening, I noticed two different moms with their kids.  Mom # 1 sat on the dock.  She caught the rays off the water and periodically yelled at her children.  Mom # 2 was in the water.  She was talking with her kids, encouraging their diving and swimming, laughing with them.  I have no idea what these moms were doing all day — whether they were at work, whether they had nannies, whether they were on vacation.  The one I respected and admired from afar leaned in.  In her spare time, she leaned in to her children.

    And so, dear friend who I have known since our children were two, you have chosen to work full-time outside the home from the beginning.  You have had an excellent mate.  You’ve had the support of a warm, on-the-scene grandparent.  You had access to excellent day care and child care.  Your child was relatively easy to raise.  And: in the almost 20 years I have known you, there has never been a time when you have not taken every opportunity to lean in and get “in the water” with your kid.  I say: hats off to you!

     

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  • Many years ago, Lily and I toured the ancient city of Nazareth with our Haifa friends and their three kids.  It was hot, so all the kids were eating popsicles.  Lily finished her treat.  She wanted to throw away her popsicle stick.  She scanned the city street for trash cans.  We walked a few blocks, and without a garbage receptacle in sight, she asked our friends what to do with her leftover stick.  They told her to throw it on the ground.  She protested: “That’s littering!”

    A burst of Hebrew and laughter among the Israeli kids. Lily and I wanted to know what they found so funny.  “If you leave a trash can,” one of the boys shouted, “they put bombs!”

    Stupid, naive Americans.  Even a nine year old should know better than to look for a sidewalk trash can.  So you litter.  Who cares?  It’s better than giving terrorists an easy place to leave an IED.

    Though Israeli friends didn’t laugh after the World Trade Center bombing, they again expressed dismay at our national naivete. Who would fly an airplane without locking the cockpit door? That, of course, is now standard practice on all U.S. flights, but El Al put that provision in place decades ago.

    At 2:50 PM yesterday, I was working at my desk.  I heard two very loud booms. I checked weather.com for thunderstorms.  It never occurred to me that what I’d heard were two bombs detonating.

    We don’t know yet how bombs wound up at the marathon’s finish line or where they were placed.  Initial analysis points to on-street trash cans or U.S. Postal Service mailboxes.  And we don’t know who perpetrated such destruction (although I firmly suspect this was yet another bunch of homegrown sickos).

    There are any number of reasons to be furious at whoever planned and carried out the bombing.  Number one, to me, is the inexorable slide towards a way of thinking that forces us to scan every landscape and imagine every potential encounter in terms of terrorism.  If we didn’t know it before, surely we Americans now have to embrace an Israeli-style popsicle stick etiquette.  We are getting hard lessons in conclusion jumping, even though we do not, with all our hearts, want to be enrolled in this particular school.

    The Boston Globe‘s reporters provided brilliant coverage of yesterday’s bombing.  Several writers referred to a “loss of innocence.”  I’m not sure what is worse: having to let go of the assumption that the world is mostly a benign place — or having to grow up in a place where even children know better than to assume that loud sounds are thunder and public rubbish bins are for trash.

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  • I can’t improve on Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times yesterday, Pom-Pom Girl for Feminism, in which she takes down Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Lean In will hit the shelves and its website will go live March 11, 2013. Sandberg wants women to think positively about moving up through corporate America’s glass ceiling.  She’s pushing to get women meeting monthly in small groups, where we will empower one another “to explore topics critical to [our] success, from negotiating effectively to understanding [our] strengths.”  Dowd complains that the wildly successful Silicon Valley exec “doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign.”  Dowd, herself, is inclined to “lean out.”

    But me, I’m in favor of leaning in.  Closer.

    I wholeheartedly endorse Sandberg’s impulse to get women in small groups to recreate a ’70s-style consciousness raising vibe.  The issue — now and in the 1970s — is who belongs in the group.  The single biggest problem with American women’s attempts to organize for rights over time, from the 1840s to the present, is its inability and/or unwillingness to consider class and race.  Our contemporary women’s movement does not need another wealthy, articulate white woman encouraging increased dialogue among similarly entitled peers. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Betty Friedan…not to take away from the remarkable achievements of these foremothers, but we’ve got to reconfigure our frustrations and rage so that we are angry on behalf of all women, not just ourselves.

    None of us has time to rely on Trickle Down — not in our economic policies, and not in our feminism. Sure, women at the top and women in business generally need better strategies to negotiate for higher salaries and better promotions. But I don’t for a minute believe that by earning these bigger paychecks and securing higher-powered jobs, better-off women will be paving the way for the poorest, most disenfranchised women in the country. They’ll be paving the way for themselves.

    If any of us needs a reminder of what women need, here are two, separate examples reported recently:

    The Last Clinic, a powerful, short documentary about the one remaining clinic in Mississippi providing abortions

    and

    Episodes 487 and 488 of This American Life, focusing on gun violence in Chicago’s predominantly African American Harper High School.

    We need to pull together, to lean in closer, so that we are working to ensure that all women have what the richest of us have: affordable health care, day care, sensible parental leave policies, the choice to use affordable birth control, access to nutritious foods, safe neighborhoods, and freedom from abuse, violence, and fear. We need to unify as a group so that we achieve these goals. Then, and only then, will the tide rise high enough to lift all boats.

    So, yeah, create a software platform that allows social media connections and the formation of  consciousness raising groups. Write an algorithm that peoples these groups with members who aren’t like each other in at least three or four profound ways.  Set up guidelines to help us tell our stories to each other. We need to listen deeply. And then? We need to get busy on behalf of each and every one of us.

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