Decoding How To Become an Active Upstander

BystandersHave you ever witnessed an individual or a group abusing, stereotyping, or disrespecting another person?
Most of us have – in our families, work places, at school, on public transportation, on the street. Some of us are able to intervene even in a small way, and many of us freeze up and later wish we had

Fifty participants in the recent “Being an active bystander workshop” offered by Vision 2020 Diversity Task Group and True Story Theater, shared their feelings about intervening in disturbing situations and then practiced interventions in small role play groups. They expressed fear of violence or escalating a situation, fear of making incorrect assumptions about what was happening, anger about the behavior they witnessed but frozen and tongue-tied when they wanted to intervene. Most were not sure what to do when faced with a disturbing incident. If they didn’t intervene, they felt shame for not speaking up, and regret that often stayed with them long after the incident.

Those who did intervene by speaking up felt excited, scared, empowered, and helpful. Facilitator Maureen Scully told the group that learning to be comfortable as an upstander who intervenes even in a small way is like practicing CPR techniques 100 times on a training dummy. Repeated practice develops the ability to respond in actual situations where rapid action in an emotional situation is required.

Being comfortable as an upstander who intervenes even in a small way is like practicing CPR techniques 100 times on a training dummy

Taking a small step to intervene is often better than doing nothing. An upstander might say “ouch!” or similarly signal that the behavior felt painful and was not okay. Moving closer to the hurt individual or saying “I’m here with you” can signal they are not alone, there is support if they wish it. Naming the behavior and its effects can clarify the inappropriateness of specific acts. Enlisting others who have observed the disrespectful behavior can make it easier to speak up and to reinforce that the behavior was inappropriate. In some cases, calling 911 might be necessary.

An upstander might say “ouch!”

After practicing intervention techniques in small role-play groups, participants were asked how they had been affected by the workshop. Many said they no longer feel alone in feeling fearful and uncertain about how to intervene; they learned it is common to feel that way and to freeze up despite good intentions to speak. Many also said that it’s better to do something, even if it is a small act. That can change the situation and can serve as practice for the upstander. Some spoke of the power of asking others to help them intervene. And one participant noted “my comfort zone of acting is smaller than my desire to act…I will work to make both bigger,” an observation that probably applies to a lot of us.


Mary Harrison, the author of this blog post, is a member of Arlington’s Vision 2020 Standing Committee and Diversity Task Group.

Growing into Consciousness: 3 Takeaways from Arlington Diversity Task Group’s event on Unconscious Biais

Christopher Dial

Christopher Dial, Research Associate at Harvard University Implicit Project, presented key results of his research during last month’s event “A look at Unconscious Bias”, hosted by the Arlington Diversity Task Group at Arlington’s Town Hall.

When preparing this event, several members of the diversity task group feared the presentation would be filled with psychological jargon. Instead, Dial put the public at ease by sharing personal experiences on unconscious bias.

We’re all biased

Christopher Dial
Christopher Dial talks on unconscious bias

I like to think that I don’t discriminate or stereotype people. The reality is that we all do. We make decisions that even go against our personal values and have significant impacts in our lives. During the talk, Dial timed how fast the audience associated male names to the career themed words and the female names to family themed words. He also measured how much time the public took to link the reverse semantic: male to family and and female to career. The audience, myself included, was puzzled to discover it took us longer to associate the latter. While I come from a lineage of women who lead ambitious careers and I am also a working mum, I struggled to match women with career words as fast as men. This exposes one of my unconscious biases. Beyond gender bias, Dial presented similar tests to unravel racial bias.

A recent podcast of the NPR show Hidden Brain looks into an experiment that Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca, and Dan Svirsky, faculty members at Harvard Business School, ran on AirBnB. Titled “#AirbnbWhileBlack: How Hidden Bias Shapes The Sharing Economy”, the podcast explores how discrimination impacts the lives of African- American guests and hosts on AirBnB: Quirtina Crittenden, a young African- American would send room requests on AirBnB only to be denied repeatedly, until she replaced her profile picture with a city landscape and shortened her name to Tina on the online platform at which time her requests were suddenly all accepted. According to NPR, “in a separate study, Luca and his colleagues have found that guests discriminate, too, and black hosts earn less money on their properties on Airbnb.” They believe unconscious bias plays a role in this disparity.

Big and small, on local and global platforms, unconscious biases shape our behavior in surprising and ordinary ways

Big and small, on local and global platforms, unconscious biases shape our behavior in surprising and ordinary ways. The challenge lies in uncovering our unconscious biases.

Spot your unconscious bias

Unconscious Bias - Q&A
Q&A, “A Look at Unconscious Bias”

The Harvard University Implicit Project developed a series of Implicit Association Tests to help individuals reveal their own hidden behavior patterns and biases. While the audience collectively tested its gender bias during the presentation, Dial encouraged others to take the test online to discover more. The participant is invited to associate “concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy)” and explore attitudes on weight, age, religion, and other traits.

“One solution is to seek experiences that could reverse or undo the patterns that created the unwanted preference”

Good news, it is possible to get rid of bias you don’t want. “One solution is to seek experiences that could reverse or undo the patterns that created the unwanted preference,” said the researchers on the Implicit Project’s website. Dial presented the results of research in which children were asked to draw pictures of scientists. Most depicted personas similar to Professor Calculus in the Adventures of Tintin, a white male with round glasses, a distinctive hair style, and a long labcoat. When asked the same question after a visit to a scientific site, the children drew more diverse characters, including women in STEM with various skin tones, hair style and fashion acumen.

Continuing the conversation and building a path forward

During the Q&A, an audience member questioned Dial on appropriate answer to the recent racist and anti-semitic graffiti at Ottoson Middle School. While Dial praised the parents in the audience for addressing this incident, he encouraged them to discuss bias and utilize all the resources and literature available to them to foster change.

Many of the upcoming Arlington Diversity Task Group’s events are open to high school or middle school students and free for all.

Stories of Stigma
True Story Theater

The second edition of the True Story Theater workshops, “ Stories of Stigmas” will occur on Tuesday, May 10, from 7 to 8:45 PM at the Robbins Library Community Room. “Stories of Stigmas”, is a reprise of our January offering which was attended by 50 people. Participants are invited to share stories of feeling stigmatized or of stigmatizing others and experience True Story’s playback of their stories.  Middle and high school students welcome.

Our Wednesday,  May 18 “Meet Fannie Barrier Williams” at Robbins Library Community Room, 7 to 8:30 pm, is an engaging evening with a black woman activist who is visiting from the early 20th century. Dressed in late 1800s fashion, she will tell us about her life, using a modern Magic Lantern to show images from her times. While she experienced discrimination, she became a force for improving women’s and blacks’ rights. She’ll answer our questions about her life. High schoolers welcome.

On Wednesday, May 25,  “Being an active bystander  workshop” at Arlington Center for the Arts, 7 to 9 pm offers attendees an opportunity to practice ways to be an active bystander in situations where someone is being mistreated.   Note that we invite those who want to attend Bystander to register.  This does not commit a person to attend; it is a way True Story Theater can gauge how many troupe members to bring to the event as role players. Middle and high school students welcome.

30% Discount with Arlington’s Book Rack: visit 13 Medford St. or email to order your book

Finally, as a follow-up to the Unconscious Bias presentation, First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington is hosting a book discussion co-sponsored by Arlington Diversity Task Group on “Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People” on Thursday, June 2, from 7:30 to 9:30 PM.  The authors Mahzarin Banaji, who manages Harvard University Implicit Project, and Anthony Greenwald, are both leading psychologists on unconscious bias. The discussion will be moderated by Esther Kingston-Mann, Professor of History and American Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston who created and taught courses on Race, Class and Gender, and led a successful student/faculty /staff initiative to establish a university-wide diversity requirement. High school students are encouraged to join.

Get Involved with us in the fall

This last event will close our 2015-2016 season of activities on community, awareness, and action around diversity in Arlington. Thanks to our members, volunteers and our 26 sponsors who made this event possible. Arlington Diversity Task Group’s work is not over, there is still so much to achieve. We hope you will spend the summer digesting and practicing what you have learned in the last few months and get involved with us in the fall.

Article by Yawa Degboe

Yawa Degboe is co-chair of the Arlington Diversity Task Groups and a Human Rights Commissioner. She lives in Arlington with her husband and her daughter.

Arlington Reads “Americanah” Discussion Groups

Americanah_AdichieEvery year, the Robbins Library selects a novel for all interested in Arlington to read and discuss. This year’s selection is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and is the story of a young woman growing up in Nigeria, coming to America, struggling, succeeding, and returning to Nigeria.  Along the way she encounters the discovery that she’s black, and what that means in America, examines self-transformations required to “fit-in” or succeed, in both the black and white communities, confronts economic disparity in both places and speaks frankly through her blog posts of what she finds on her journey.

It is a compelling tale, told more as a narrative than a novel.  It has been criticized as having poor character development, for the main character Ifemelu being “not very likable”.  Some like the way it ends, some don’t.  Some like the characterizations of her boyfriends, relatives, and associates, some find them shallow representations, some say they are reasonable symbols for the narrative.  It is a book that creates a lot of conversations in the groups that have formed to discuss it.

Personally, I found the voice of the narrator strong, but unfriendly, and even considered putting the book down about a quarter of the way through it.I’m glad I didn’t.

Personally, I found the voice of the narrator strong, but unfriendly, and even considered putting the book down about a quarter of the way through it.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Once I became comfortable with the style, I became engrossed and couldn’t put it down.  I attribute my initial discomfort to my personal biases.  That alone was revealing.

Pervasive through the narrative is personal contrast between Ifemelu and her surroundings, and between the secondary characters and the choices they make in their situations.  There is an abiding question of identity throughout – who am I in relation to [this person, this group, this community]? Who do I want to be?  These questions have sparked similar questions in readers about culture, race, gender, class, and personal will.

A deep dive into unfamiliar territory for most of the readers

Discussions in the groups have generally included gratitude for the information – the deep dive into unfamiliar territory for most of the readers, and how that deep dive contrasted with their previous perceptions, or reinforced concepts that they had heard mentioned but never really appreciated their impact.  The scenes in the hair salon have been the subject of many discussions, with expressions of wonder and concern at the effort (and pain) involved.

The ending of the book has also produced contrasting discussions, ranging from appreciation, to confusion, to disappointment.  Proof, I think, of the depth of involvement with the characters.

The library, together with the Vision2020 Diversity Task Group, is holding a discussion on “Identity”, based on  passages in the book, with an interesting panel willing to talk about their personal experiences.  Information on this panel discussion can be found here:

Brooks Harrelson.

Brooks Harrelson  is a member of the Arlington Vision2020 Diversity Task Group, and was a member of the selection committee for Arlington Reads Together 2016.

From 1970 to 2016, What Has Changed for Persons with Disabilities?

The Perspectives of an Arlington Human Rights Commissioner

Picture by Miguel Mndoza – creative commons

As a former teacher of special needs children, I am especially conscious of the barriers that prevented my students from full participation in the life of their communities. Some of those barriers were physical, but many were rooted in the misconceptions of the general public, their uneasiness with other-abled people, or their simple lack of awareness as to the needs of that particular population.

I was made shockingly aware of these psychological barriers when one of my students – a lovely, kind 5th grader with a moderate case of cerebral palsy – told me about something that had happened to her while she was out shopping with her mother. While the mothers were occupied with making their purchases, another child came over to play with her. Seeing her child with my student, the mother called to him, “Get away from her. She’s contaminated!” My student told me this story with a mixture of hurt and incredulity. I was infuriated that a grownup who should have known better could have been so cruel and ignorant.

“Get away from her. She’s contaminated!”

I believe that in the past several decades since that incident occurred the general public has become more aware of the needs of people like my student, primarily through implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. As cities such as Boston have improved accessibility to public transportation, government buildings, and public places in general, other-able people are more visible in those public places as well as in offices, schools, and entertainment venues. Visibility has raised awareness, as have educational efforts in schools and in some children’s programs such as Sesame Street. I believe that children like my student are far less likely today to experience the insults that she was subjected to in 1970, although the need for education and, at times, legal redress continues.

Much more needs to be done to make our country

more just and inclusive.

As news reports frequently point out, racism, sexism, anti-gay and lesbian incidents, ageism, the criminalization of homelessness, and other insulting or bullying acts against minority communities are still common occurrences in our society at large. Much more needs to be done to make our country more just and inclusive. In contrast, there is much support for diversity and equal treatment for all in Arlington. I feel privileged, as an Arlington Human Rights Commissioner, to participate in work that maintains and expands that support so that no one in our community will be denied his or her God-given human rights because of gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, religion, age, or physical limitations.


Ghanda Di Figlia


GhandaDiFigliaGhanda Di Figlia is the former Department Administrator in the Philosophy Department at Harvard University.  Prior to that, she worked for church-based non-profits and as a teacher of special needs children.  She moved to Arlington in 2011 and has been an Arlington Human Rights Commissioner for nearly 3 years.

The mission of the Arlington Human Rights Commission is to make our town an even more welcoming and safe place for people of color, LGBT people, and members of other minorities by educating about human rights issues and supporting legal measures aimed at protecting and extending those rights for all in Arlington. For more information about current openings at the Arlington Human Right Commission, visit the AHRC’s page on the Town website.


Arlington, What Can We Learn From the All-White Oscar Nominations?



Honestly, the all-White Oscar acting nomination is not surprising to me, the controversy is. The lack of diversity in the Awards Academy nominations surfaced in previous years already. According to the Los Angeles Times, 94% of the Oscar voters are Whites, 77% male and have a median age of 62. Beyond the lack of diversity, another issue arose: “But I think it sucks that if black people want Academy Awards we can’t just make movies about anything but slavery,” said Trevor Noah, Host of the Daily Show. This statement prompted questions on the role the Awards Academy expects black talents to play. Well, how does it relate to Arlington?

“But I think it sucks that if black people want Academy Awards we can’t just make movies about anything but slavery,”

In the movie industry, the Eddie Murphies, Denzel Washington and Whoopi Goldbergs of the world paved the way for a stream of actors and actresses who depicts the complexities of black identities. On the small screen, African-American actresses fiercely trump prime time on national TV with two shows casting black female leads pursuing ambitious careers: Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder on ABC. But I still wonder if these accomplishments suffice to reset the monochromic vision of black individuals in the public consciousness.


Arlington Town Hall

Charlotte Rampling, a British aspirant to the best actress Oscar said on French radio over the fuss on this all-White list of Oscar acting nominees “It is racist to Whites.” She since back-tracked her comments and later affirmed that “Diversity in our industry is an important issue that needs to be addressed.” Let’s think through her initial comments. Reverse racism, a belief that whites people are as discriminated against or even more than black people, has increased in the last six decades. According to a 2011 Tufts and Harvard Business School research, “Whites think more progress has been made toward equality than do Blacks, but Whites also now believe that this progress is linked to a new inequality—at their expense.” Is it being discriminatory to white people to ask that black and white talents be judged equally? Rampling benefits from an industry that rarely features minorities in roles which are not color-coded. If that ever changes, Mo’Nique, an African-American actress who won the 2010 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the movie “Precious,” – a movie about rape and poverty, no slavery – may have played her part in “45 Years”, the film Rampling is currently nominated for.


“It is racist to Whites.”


Menotomy Indian Hunter
Menotomy Indian Hunter, Arlington

What I know from experience is how some groups of Arlington residents are trying to bring change in systems that – knowingly or not – institutionalize discrimination. Gary Horowitz of the Arlington Human Rights Commission once shared during a workshop organized by True Story Theater why he decided to join the Commission. A late friend told him years ago that one can’t do much about discriminatory individuals but many can do plenty against institutionalized discrimination. As a Commissioner, Horowitz now advances equal treatment for all in Arlington. Among other accomplishments in 2015, the Arlington Human Rights Commission – who hosts monthly open forums to hear residents’ concerns – responded to hate speech, organized dialogues on gender identity and expression, and presented other events that foster its mission. That I know for I have been working as Commissioner of the Arlington Human Rights Commission for the past few months.


One can’t do much about discriminatory individuals but many can do plenty against institutionalized discrimination.

What I know from experience is how the Arlington Diversity Task Group is pushing for more diversity in town government, networking with local minority groups to amplify their voices, resolutely holding the Arlington Public School system accountable for diversifying Arlington Public School’s teaching corps, sponsoring public conversations on diversity matters like unequal justice, stigmas, or the forum “We are many faiths and spiritualities,”. The Arlington Diversity Task Group often converse with the Arlington Police Department and the Human Rights Commission, who are the first responders to any discriminatory acts perpetrated in town. That I know for I have been an enthusiastic member of this group, which encourages Arlington to examine steady steps the community can take to be welcoming to all, in practice as well as in policy.


Historic Map of Arlington
Historic Map of Arlington – 1884

Once a blue-collar town, Arlington has incredibly changed in the last few decades. Now 60% of households have an income of $75,000 or more, and 64% of the residents 25 and over hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Rampant gentrification and skyrocketing real estate prices force many long-time residents out of Arlington and limit opportunities for affordable housing. Race and ethnicities have changed too. The U.S Census Bureau revealed that “Hispanic and racial minorities comprise 16.4 percent of Arlington’s population, and 57 percent of the minority population is Asian.” I indeed noticed more minorities in my neighborhood since we first moved to Arlington, even though diversity is still limited. Many times my little one was the only brown girl in the ring at Robbins Library singalongs, kids shows at the Regent Theater, or ballet class at Arlington Dance Place.

Boston Skyline from Arlington, photo by Juhan Sonin

I have been in Arlington long enough to identify who mints the alloy of our town, how, where and when. While I laud officials over including diversity in the Town goals and striving for a more inclusive community, way before the Awards Academy even considered its own bias, I can’t help to think we need to do more to breathe more diversity into our lives…at Town Meetings, in the Town offices, in Arlington Schools, at Robbins and Fox Libraries, at the ice cream shop, at the gym etc. For an uniform town is like an all-White acting nominees list: pleasant yet incomplete.

Yawa Degboe

Yawa Degboe is a member of the Arlington Diversity Task Groups and a Human Rights Commissioner.

What is it like to be stigmatized?

The True Story Troup Playing Back the Story Shared by Eva, an Audience Member

How does feeling stigmatized make someone feel? Hurt. Ashamed. Isolated. Less than. Other. And how does it feel to have stigmatized someone and to try to reach out and repair that? Hurt. Ashamed. Yearning for healing.

Hurt. Ashamed. Isolated.

The January 9 “Stigmas” show by True Story Theater in partnership with Arlington Vision 2020 Diversity Task Group, evoked a deep, rich exploration of how it feels to be stigmatized/stereotyped and to stigmatize someone.

Audience members were invited to share stories about being stigmatized, and True Story troupe members reflected back the stories in movement, dialog, music. After the playback of the story, the group was asked “how many of you have experienced something similar?” – being taunted by schoolmates or others, feeling isolated and called an undesirable “other,” saying hurtful words to someone? Each time many hands flew up or hovered close to the chest; often well over half the audience of 50 people raised their hands.

“How many of you have experienced something similar?”

During a brief “share with another person your story of feeling stigmatized,” the room buzzed with voices rising in tempo and volume. Clearly we all had painful stories to tell. We share the feelings of being stigmatized and often carry them with us through our lives.

Some have found ways to heal old stigma hurts; some are still seeking to know their own goodness and dignity. “Underneath everything we are all one,” one of the actors said, summing up a powerful playback of a story.

“Underneath everything we are all one,”

Prior to the show, the audience was asked to take a card and write on it a brief response to “How are you affected by Stigmas?” Here are some of those responses which illustrate the many ways we can be stigmatized.

  • When I was in high school and I did my absolute best, they made fun of me.
  • Divorce causes stigma. Those who do not follow the crowd, especially during the school years, can be stigmatized.
  • I was a 21 year old sailor in uniform in Logan Airport (1968) and spit at!
  • My experience with stigma involves feeling it – as a lesbian, as a first gen American, other ways—and feeling OTHERS’ pain in the face of their stigmata.
  • My constant tendency to stigmatize myself: that I am not good enough, that I don’t measure up. A fear.
  • I have a life-long disability but grew up at a time when us “polio kids” were not supposed to be disabled or think disabled. In fact – disability was “other.” So I lived a lie for most of my life –what I should be vs what/who I am.
  • As a queer and trans person of color I feel stigma often. I often think about how being out about my identities will change the way that folks interact with me and think about me.
  • Stigma of being a woman/Indian/modern and belonging to an extended family where none of that is actually respected.
  • Stigma and bullying go hand in hand – those who are doing the stigmatizing have issues with power. They themselves may have been stigmatized and bully to try to take back what has been lost. They may never realize that bullying can intensify their pain.

Here are some responses to the question “How were you affected by the show?”

  • I learned how many people are impacted by stigma or prejudice. I gained perspective on how to embrace our differences. Lastly, I was reminded of a stigmatizing event in my life, how far I have come, and it helped to put it to bed permanently.
  • I found it moving and enlightening. Words hurt – as witnessed by people who spoke of hurts that occurred 50 years ago. A good lesson to remember.
  • I rediscovered that the experience of alienation that comes from being stigmatized can be turned into a bridge toward others who feel alienated for the same or other reasons.
  • I was affected by the truth of how everyone carries a stigma from being “the other” at some time in their life.
  • Through this evening’s program, I realized more deeply than ever that anyone’s story of stigma is everyone’s story.

True Story Theater, in collaboration with its Living Brochure Project partners, plans to offer “Stigmas” again on May 10.

The project is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Mary Harrison, the author of this blog post, is a member of Arlington’s Vision 2020 Standing Committee and Diversity Task Group.

Restorative Justice, as seen by an Arlington High School Student

In November, I had the privilege of participating in a Restorative Justice Session at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington. Prior to this session, I had only briefly heard about the process, and had dismissed it in favor of more “concrete” methods of justice and retribution for two reasons. First, as a high schooler I couldn’t see myself interacting with a group of adults in such a setting. Second, I believed that our (the group members) experiences would be so disparate, that healing would be impossible.

We began by sitting in a ‘peace’ circle (a custom borrowed from Native American and African cultures), which immediately established a sense of respect and equality between participants. Once the ice had been broken, each member of the circle shared a word  that sprang to mind when they recalled a time they had been hurt by another. Responses included  “shame”, “abandonment”, and “powerlessness”. The process was then repeated for multiple situations that involved difficulties revolving around human relationships, pain and recovery.

By the end of the evening, I felt a sense of fellowship with every person in the room. Despite differences in age and gender, we realized that our experiences were universal and that pain certainly does not discriminate. The lack of judgement and mutual respect exhibited by all group members was truly inspiring, and I’m anxiously waiting to see Restorative Justice methods applied on a national, and international scale.

Sana Mohtadi

Sana Mohtadi

Sana Mohtadi is a junior at Arlington High School. She is involved in Model UN, Model Congress, and the Young Feminists Alliance. Sana is also a member of the Arlington Baha’i community, along with her family.

Donald Trump’s cheering crowds stoke fear of a witch hunt

DECEMBER 10, 2015

AS THE daughter of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, I shudder at Donald Trump’s remarks about Muslims (“Raising rhetoric, Trump calls for ban on Muslim travel to the US,” Page A1, Dec. 8). His latest call to deny entry to the United States for all Muslims and to require Muslims here, even US citizens, to be on a national registry is over the top. What is even more distressing is the applause he gets at rallies for these proposals.

My parents, who escaped from Germany just in time, urged me to always keep my passport current. “You never know when things turn against Jews and you’ll have to leave this country,” they stressed. “A witch hunt, like happened to us in Germany, can erupt at any time, against any group.”

I thought they were paranoid. But I don’t think this anymore. Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and the cheers he gets for it eerily sound like the kind of 21st-century demagogue my parents warned me about. I am frightened even though I am not Muslim.

I just checked that my passport is up to date, and my husband’s too. I hope we won’t have to use them. My children probably think I am paranoid. I know otherwise.

Miriam Stein, Arlington

(published as a letter to the Boston Globe)

Miriam Stein, MSW, is an advocacy trainer, consultant and speaker. She is also the author of Make Your Voice Matter With Lawmakers: No Experience Necessary. For more than 10 years, she was co-chair of the Vision 2020 Diversity Task Group.



Letter to Arlingtonians| Why Say “Black Lives Matter”? by Lori Kenschaft


I was on my way out the door last Sunday when another First Parish member called to say that First Parish’s Black Lives Matter banner had been vandalized. 

When I got there I discovered that someoBLM_Lorine had painted over the word “Black” with white paint. They had bent and broken the metal banner frame. And they had stabbed a pair of scissors into the earth – a little bizarrely, since they had not used the scissors to cut the banner or its ties.

Our minister, Marta Flanagan, came out to see the banner right before the service, her robe blowing behind her in the wind. Her plan was to preach on Harper Lee’s two books, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, and she wove the news of the banner vandalism into her sermon.

A member of our congregation has been making Black Lives Matter buttons, which we have been making available in a low-key way. By coincidence he had brought a bag full of new buttons just that morning, so after the service we asked people whether they would like to wear a Black Lives Matter button. Most people responded eagerly, clearly glad to have some way to respond to what had happened. Two people averted their eyes.

Since then there have been a lot of emails. Some pained by the hostility implicit in this act. Some gracious and sympathetic. Some angry and hostile.

I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” phrase.

To those who argue that saying Black Lives Matter is not sufficient to address the problems of racism in our country – of course you’re right. But that’s also beside the point.

BLM _ LoriNo one action is sufficient to address the problems of racism, but that is not a reason to refrain from all actions.

I’m troubled when people seem to translate Black Lives Matter as Black Deaths Matter. Wrongful deaths are wrong, of course. But I care more about the living than the dead.


I’m also troubled when people assume that Black Lives Matter is a statement just about police.

Police carry guns and are authorized to use force in the name of the state, so their bad decisions are more likely to be lethal. And some – not all – police departments have encouraged a macho culture that leads to unnecessary belligerence and too many bad decisions. That culture needs to change.

But very often police are asked to deal with problems that the rest of us don’t want to deal with. Mental illness and the paucity of good mental health care. The emptiness of the heart that leads to substance abuse, and the heartache that ensues. Schools that focus more on punishment than learning. Entrenched poverty. Entrenched unemployment, creating a lack of structure and purpose as well as material want. Disappointed dreams and expectations. These deep problems lie behind many police calls, and the police have only a limited ability to deal with them.

In ancient times, a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem would confess the sins of the people over the head of a goat and then drive it into the wilderness, carrying the people’s sins with it.

When we scapegoat an officer who dealt poorly with a tough situation, we attempt to do much the same thing.

We live in a punishing society that responds to harm by trying to inflict pain and expel the wrongdoer. But the reality is inflicting pain does not heal the harm.

Yes, police training should include techniques for de-escalating conflict, treating people compassionately while maintaining social order, and restorative justice. Sometimes it does – including here in Arlington. But good policing alone cannot possibly solve the spiritual and material problems rooted in racism – in the belief that some people are more valuable than others because of their appearance and/or ancestry.

I’m troubled above all by the way “all lives matter” has become a riposte rather than an affirmation.

I grew up believing that all lives matter. Black lives, white lives, Syrian lives. Native American lives, Bangladeshi lives, Ethiopian lives. Chinese lives, Russian lives, Ukrainian lives. Iraqi lives, Afghan lives. Mexican lives, Honduran lives. LGBT and heterosexual lives too.

But that’s not what I hear when people respond to Black Lives Matter by saying that all lives matter. Or by painting out the word “Black” on a banner.

BLM_FirstParishThe reality is that people with darker skins are more likely to be looked at with suspicion, subjected to punishment, and considered outside the “we” of majority concern. Too often black Americans receive the message that their hurt, their suffering, doesn’t matter.

White Americans hurt too. Some of us suffer from financial and material want. All of us are vulnerable to illness, loneliness, death, grief, and heartache. That’s all true. But we don’t have the added burden of knowing that people who look like us are often treated poorly, and wondering how much the color of our skin has contributed to life’s many disappointments.

I believe that racism and racial inequalities have persisted in this country in part because too many people feel that black people’s suffering is somehow less important, less suffering.

And that is why I think it is important to affirm that Black Lives Matter.

When I was a child there was a popular saying that “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”  I see Black Lives Matter banners and buttons and such as one step in a journey of a thousand miles – a journey that many of us are on, experimenting with different approaches and finding our way, seeking a goal that we don’t know how to find but we know in our hearts is worth reaching for.

Lori Kenschaft

LoriLori Kenschaft is the Clerk of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist and coordinator of First Parish’s Mass Incarceration Working Group.  She has a Masters of Theological Studies and a Ph.D. in American Studies, and recently co-authored Gender Inequality in Our Changing World: A Comparative Approach (Routledge, 2015).

The views expressed in this blog are those of Lori Kenschaft personally, not as a representative of any organization. Pictures by Lori Kenschaft. 


Perspectives on Castro’s Cuba: a panel discussion and an evening with Carlos Eire

Winchester Reads, sponsored by The John & Mary Murphy Educational Foundation with additional support from Book Ends, the Friends of the Winchester Public Library, the Winchester Multicultural Network, Winchester Public Schools, and many enthusiastic volunteers, will present two events related to this year’s book selection. Readers who have enjoyed Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, the follow-up to his 2003 National Award-winning Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, will look forward to the following events:

Cuba Past and Present: 1950s to 2015

A Panel Discussion 
Lou Alvarez, Maria Nicholson,
Luis Domenech, and Dr. Yamil Kouri
Tuesday, October 13 at 7:30 pm
Jenks Center,
109 Skillings Road, Winchester


Dr. Kouri, who was a political prisoner in Cuba for 15 years, will discuss recent Cuban history. Nicholson came to the United States with her family in 1968 and is a longtime Winchester resident and Alvarez is a retired Winchester High School Spanish teacher who emigrated from Cuba with her parents in 1960. Domenech arrived in the United States in 1965 and since 2010 has traveled back to Cuba almost annually. All will share their personal experiences as refugees from Cuba.
The panel is presented in conjunction with this year’s Winchester Reads selection Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy by Carlos Eire, one of 14,000 children airlifted to Miami after the Castro revolution. 
The event is free and open to all.