Race Relations + KC = A Unique Opportunity

An author by the name of Tanner Colby wrote the book, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.  As a teacher consultant for the Greater Kansas City Writing Project this is a book we study in our Summer Institute to help us address social justice matters we see playing out in our classrooms and communities.  In this book, he outlines that despite laws put in place to mandate integration we, as humans, found a way to continue segregating through four key areas: busing in public education,  restrictive covenants and the birth of suburbia in real estate, marketing and advertising in the media, and religious beliefs.  His book is broken up into these for key areas, with the second part–restrictive covenants and blockbusting–focusing solely on Kansas City.

J.C. Nichols, a real-estate mogul in the area at that time, was not just a key player in making this happen, he was the player.  With direct ties to the federal government and FHA he, quite literally, singlehandedly created the suburbs of Johnson County and built the “Troost Wall” of racial divide in our city.  Fact: to this very day there is not a pizza joint on the west side of Troost that will deliver to the east side of Troost.  If you live on the east side, pizza delivery is a luxury you do not have.  These facts and many others are uncovered as the reader finds the immense amount of work left to do to address race relations in this country.  If you are an American citizen, this book is an essential read.

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A part of our Writing Project Summer Institute work is a “Taking Action” piece that addresses how participants will leave this experience to make positive change regarding these issues where they see them.  The first year we worked with this text many participants simply took the step in adding this book to their curriculum so they could teach their students the unique history Kansas City holds in race relations.  This book offers a much more realistic and balanced view than focusing only on MLK, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom March.  The whole country was involved and we omit some very significant content in our retelling of this history.

From this simple step two things happened: a field trip was put in place by way of bus tour  for students metro-wide so they could experience their city in connection to what they read about it in the text.  After the tour students then went back to write from a stance of place and have discussions about social justice issues facing our city.  The writing and discussion that came from this was powerful, and people started hearing about it.  After all, kids from across the city were coming together for a field trip.  Never had this been done in an organized way and around such compelling topics in need of discussion.

As this was happening in public schools, the second thing happened: Tanner Colby came to Kansas City through a series of visits he had set up with the Johnson County Library to discuss his book and race relations in KC.  All of us at the Writing Project jumped on, informing him and the library of all the work we had done with his book.  The movement was gaining momentum.  We were able to speak to him through a conference call to get more ideas in taking this back to our classrooms, as well as his insight on the best way to approach this topic responsibly with kids.  Since his speaking forums had already been set up through the library we were able to bring in kids from the classrooms who’d studied his text and been on the bust tour to talk about race in KC.  To hear what these students had to say was, in a word, humbling.  To say the energy at the start of the discussion was awkward is an understatement, but by the end it was something intangible and awe-inspiring.

So, where are we now?  Johnson Country Libraries are working on getting Tanner to make a five-year commitment to KC.  We are currently working to get him scheduled to return in the fall of 2016.  So, over this next year we have developed what it being called the Teacher Summit.  This group of teachers spans pre-K through collegiate with our primary work focused on how to get this discussion in classrooms at all levels, K-12.  The team of librarians we are working with in Johnson County have connections to Mid-Continent so this work can spread more largely on the Missouri side as well.  I am working directly with them to create ways to make this conversation accessible and appropriate at the elementary level.  If you have any interest it being a part of the Teacher Summit, please let me know.  Or if you cannot make that commitment, but want to bring this work into your classroom we can arrange that as well.  I am energized with where this work is headed and cannot wait to see students from all over the metro coming together for a unifying purpose.

In the meantime, you should check out this podcast:

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It’s hosted by Tanner Colby, along with two other authors of books addressing race in our country–Baratunde Thurston (African American) and Raquel Cepeda (Dominican American).  This leads to balanced, intellectual discussion on matters that need balance and intellect.

As we continue to see racial issues play out in the media almost daily, more often than not the question becomes, “How close are we to putting all this behind us?”  In short, we aren’t. And in all honesty I’m not sure an issue such as this one can ever truly be “behind us.”  This is going to be  facing us for years to come. We have to learn how to come to the table to discuss it in a way that makes progress.  Not a way that turns to politics or a diatribe.  This is not an issue to be solved by politics, it’s an issue to be solved by humanity.  It’s on us, as humans, to come together with open ears and minds ready to listen.  I know that sounds very kumbaya-ish, but in truth we have to stop looking to someone else to solve the problem and start looking within ourselves.  That’s when change is made.  Do you want to be a part of it?

Literary Luncheon- Grandma’s Kerpicas #SOL15

I just wrote this last week to share at for the Literary Luncheon we have during the Summer Institute at our local Writing Project site.  It has not been workshopped at all, and I’m too emotionally connected to it to do so objectively.  That said, I had to get it out there.  It brought about many memories and was therapeutic to write.  Feedback welcome.

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There’s a sleepy little town in Illinois by the name of St. David.  Labeling it little is generous and to research it is in vain. The few facts you find are quite dismal.  Population: 587. Streets: 15.  Banks: 1.  Stoplights: 0.  But as numbers tend to go, these don’t tell the whole story.  Amongst those 15 streets sits a home on West Burlington Avenue constructed by the calloused hands and faulty heart of a man I never knew, my grandfather.  A heart that would leave him as cold as the winter’s day on which he passed. On that day my grandmother rounded the kitchen corner, delivering warm coffee to his side.  As she looked upon him teardrops and broken glass shattered against the floor simultaneously.  The scalding coffee spewed forth, but the burns were never felt.  At least not externally. Shoveling snow had stopped the old man’s heart, and in the time it took him to walk through the door, ask for a fresh cup of joe, and lie down on the couch he was gone.  My grandma, filling his cup only feet away, as he took his last breaths. This memory, this kitchen would torture my grandma for the rest of her life.  But, leave the home? No way. He had built this house for her, for them.  She would care for it as he intended, keeping her promise to the man she would always love.

But this version of grandma’s kitchen was not the one that I knew.  The grandma’s kitchen I knew was a long, skinny one where rumps and elbows bumped with haphazard turns. One that left the back door slamming on hot summer days between potty breaks and popsicle pilfering. One that used a wooden spoon to hold up a window pane or swat a misbehaving child on their backside.  One that had a flyswatter on that same window sill where my grandma took no mercy on these buzzing passers-by.  She considered swatting flies an Olympic sport, one in which she always took the gold.  Legend has it those silver-winged insects didn’t even have to land.  As soon as they were in her line of sight, the flick of her wrist sent the swatter wasping through the air and they were as good as gone.  She never needed a second shot; her aim was impeccable.

The times were simpler then, or at least I think they were.  The more I learn the more I wonder if anything has ever really been simple.  But those moments in the kitchen seemed to be.  Milk, eggs, flour, water, and salt were the only food staples grandma needed to satisfy the grumbling tummies of her grandchildren.  When flour clouded the air above the counters we’d quickly scamper in knowing that kerpicas were on the menu.  These Croatian egg noodles came to our dinner table through my great-grandparents, Antonia and Joseph, who traveled to America in the early 1900’s from Yugoslavia.  Their travels landed them in Painesdale, Michigan, a copper mining town that began as a tent town in 1899.  While there they would grow their family by 8 children, one being my Grandma Josie–the only grandparent I ever knew.  She was a hard broad, a Croatian curser who had no time for pishitca (bullshit).  After living through the Great Depression and the rations of World War II, my grandmother was also crafty and thrifty all at once.  She refused to let anything go to waste and knew how to make something from nothing.  A satisfying meal made from basic goods–well, that was all she really knew.  By the time the flour settled we were there to help break the eggs, add the milk, whisk, knead, and cut the noodles to make a plentiful pot.  Sprinkle in a little salt, melt some butter on top, and feast.  We gathered around this simple fare time after time, enjoying it all the more because we were a part in making it.

The kitchen I knew was one where the wooden, round table we sat to eat was also where we played card games, read newspaper comics, and on occasion, would find my grandmother sitting alone, staring off in a distant gaze. I imagine now she was recalling back that fateful day and wishing in so many ways it could have been different, that he didn’t have to miss so much.  I hope in some way our girlish giggles and silly shenanigans eased the pain, paving the way for happier memories.  She always said we were full of pee and vinegar, and that we were.  In return, I hope she knows how many happy memories she created for us.  She now rests beside my grandfather once again, and would be beyond proud that her noodles have stood the test of time, still satisfying appetites of those gathered together today.