Published by

Natasha Thomas

Natasha Thomas is a born and raised North Dakotan, board-certified music therapy educator, performer and prime mover for promoting challenging conversations and activism online and off. Currently living and working in New Orleans, Natasha loves to eat seafood and plot different ways to bring people together and make them think about the arts, cultural sensitivity and the unique and valuable roles each of us has to play in the universe. Her ultimate goal? To see all of humanity celebrating — and not just tolerating — all the diversity life has to offer us.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Midwest Girl at Mardi Gras And What New Orleans Has Taught Me So Far

My parents were in town recently, along with my grandparents — the first senior members of my family to visit since my husband and I moved south from North Dakota to New Orleans last year. My youngest sister visited in October; my middle sister is planning to come out in a few more weeks.

I find that visits from family members have really brought out the ways in which an individual can change and grow after moving away from their home town and core family members. Here are just a few of the ways family and friends have noted — first, the more tangible changes, namely attire and décor:

Living in a Southern state has meant an almost total overhaul in wardrobe.  Gone are my uggs and layers of thick fabric skinny jeans and sweaters. Enter T-shirt dresses and palazzo pants, clothing meant to breathe and let air move through it, rather than keep heat from escaping!

How I organize my home has also undergone some pretty notable changes, too — New Orleans is known for its Shotgun-style houses and brightly colored facades. As a result, the floorplan of my home is very long — you walk through the front door and almost straight through to the back, with only minimal detours to reach various rooms. And the walls are funky shades of orange, blue and yellow with black-and-white tile in the bathroom. It’s weird, but it works (kinda like New Orleans in general, but more on that later).

Looking back, it’s almost like it was in anticipation of this change to the stark white and neutral beige of my old abode in North Dakota that I sold nearly all of our old art and wall hangings before we left. In our New Orleans apartment now, every piece of art that hangs on our walls is a custom-made original.

Take for instance this rendering of my belly-dance troupe from North Dakota, painted in a bright, postwar Japanese style. It was gifted to our troupe by the artist when we first began in our little raggedy basement studio — it no longer fit in the most recent studio space we were in around the time I was preparing to move, so my dance sisters gifted it to me, saying “It belongs in New Orleans.” And I can’t help but think they were absolutely right, as I see it now everyday above the mantel adorned with Mardi Gras beads and other brightly colored throws (forgive the dim lighting, I like my living space to feel like an after hours cocktail lounge, apparently).

This leads me to discussing some internal changes my family members have noted since I’ve been living in a larger city with a notably Caribbean culture:

“Whoo, Lord, look Natasha how she big!” my Grandmother cackled in her Caribbean lilt the first time she saw me after our move. Initially presuming she was talking about my weight (which she frequently does with all the people she loves) I chuckled, “Thanks Grandma.” But she pulled me aside later to expand on her comment, saying, “I meant you’re growing into yourself, not just weight.  That’s not a bad thing. It suits you.”

And she’s right. I mean, I have gained weight — though in my defense I’m a woman with PCOS who’s had some pretty major change-ups in her hormonal structure lately, and dangit the food here is just too damn good! But “growing into” myself? Yes, that I embrace wholeheartedly. Being able to blend in a little bit for the first time in my life has given me the opportunity to really get to know myself — how and where I like to spend my time, the kind of people I like to spend it with, etc.

All of that has shifted in subtle and yet profound ways. For example, I still dance, but I don’t teach dance anymore. And I don’t miss it like I thought I would. I teach in plenty of other arenas in my life. When it comes to dance, I just wanna dance. For me.

I don’t spend as much time away from home as I used to. I’m still busy, but in different ways. I say no more often. But I smile more often, too. My laugh has changed. I hear my Grandmother’s cackle in myself now, too. I “am” bigger. And it suits me.

The Caribbean culture of New Orleans seems to foster this sort of “bigness” in all its residents. Mardi Gras was a few weeks back, and no local holiday seems to amplify this more: School was out for the entire week, but festivities began even before then, on Jan. 6, which is King Day, or the Day of Epiphany, when the Wisemen were said to have visited the Christchild. New Orleanians celebrate with cakes that have little plastic babies in them (no I’m not kidding, they’re called King Cakes, and if you find the baby in your slice, it’s good luck AND you have to host the next party). Local Bakeries go all out for these, and if you want the best ones in town, you either have to order them in advance of when you need them or wait in line before the bakery that sells them opens at 6 a.m. because they’ll sell out by 7 a.m. I’ve had one such cake, and man was it worth it!

From January through February, weekly parades became increasingly extravagant, with major streets lined with people and lawnchairs, some families even barbecuing in the “neutral ground” between lanes of traffic, hours before start time. Edible treats like King cakes and nonedible artistic displays alike are decorated in the holiday’s traditional colors of yellow, purple and green and can be found in grocery stores, in the windows of people’s houses, you name it. On Mardi Gras itself, people adorned their bodies in the colors, with brightly colored costuming and makeup. Glitter and beads were everywhere.

And the parades. Good Lord the PARADES. I attended four out of maybe 20-plus that happened in the city from Jan. 6 to the end of February. The first was Krewe de Vieux, a walking parade through the French Quarter two weeks before Mardi Gras, with raunchy and politically themed hand made displays that were the perfect kick off to the day of debauchery that was to come.

My husband and I found a spot near the start of the parade route, right on the edge of the street within arms reach of marching marauders, who all seemed to get a great kick out of the shirt I had chosen to wear for the parade — which contained some NSFW material, but that was a good thing because it meant paraders threw me more elusive prizes from the floats. I was also kissed and spanked by more strangers than I think I’ve ever experienced before, but those also felt like prizes in their own silly way. The LGBT community shows up BIG for Mardi Gras, and as a bisexual woman, that was magic to experience. Love was all around.

My second parade was one I actually got to participate in, with a group of belly dancers from a local studio where I’ve been taking classes. Chewbaccus is a science fiction-themed walking parade where not only the floats are handmade but the prizes thrown from them were too. My sub-Krewe spent hours upon hours making little bottlecap necklaces with our logo on them, and we STILL ran out by the end of our three-hour march. The name we danced under was “The Sensuous Sisters of Zaltros,” a reference to an obscure race of aliens from the Star Wars universe.

I texted my mother an image of myself before the parade started, joking “do you recognize your long lost daughter?”  My mother replied “I’d know that face anywhere!”

The last two parades I attended were the largest, with the last one really being a series of parades on Mardi Gras itself. The Krewe of Nyx marches the Wednesday before Mardi Gras and was the first parade I saw with industrial-size floats.  They’re actually stored in a warehouse and take almost a year to make —each one is a work of art.  They’re typically pulled by a tractor that declares the name or theme of the float along with the names of any sponsors or special guests on it.

Each parade typically has “royalty” in it, a king and queen and some dukes and duchesses; they’re either elected from the membership of the Krewe or invited by the community the Krewe represents (for instance, Chewbaccus had a member of the Walking Dead cast in our parade, though I was too far back in the lineup to see him and as I understand he marched in disguise).

Each parade is also known for different types of throws. As I mentioned the ones at Chewbaccus are all handmade, but the more industrial parades throw a combination of factory and handmade throws. Naturally, the most coveted of these are handmade, and each parade’s handmade throws are unique.

Nyx throws purses. Like, actual purses. They’re hand-bedazzled and painted and rare, rare, rare.

Grown adults elbow each other in the face for these things, no joke. It’s really so bizarre to witness and yet easy to get caught up in. When you lock eyes with someone on a float and see them winding up to throw in your direction, you just wanna catch it so badly!  But Bernie and I are both really bad at catch so alas, no purse this year — maybe next year.

The Zulu parade throws hand-painted coconuts. Once upon a time, they were real coconuts, but now they’re plastic.  Still, it’s a treat to catch one of those! This year, I got two. I just got lucky enough to get close to a float and someone literally just reached over the side and handed it to me — no catching required. I think Bernie caught the second one from a distance. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened.  The whole day is a bit of a blur.

On Mardi Gras itself, people get up super early. The Zulu parade starts at 8 a.m., but most folks are lined up by 7 a.m. Some even camp out on the parade route overnight. My husband and I walked from our apartment, which took a little longer than expected, so we rolled up around 8:30 a.m., and the street was packed.

Working our way to the front was a wild, rotational adventure. As people catch things and move to return them to their lawnchairs or other “home bases,” space sort of naturally opens up and you move forward. But then the marching bands come through.

When you hear a marching band approaching, the crowd just moves — you get out of the way because the bands are always wider than the floats (ALWAYS), and the gradual inching forward of bystanders when floats come through can sometimes result in the crowd occupying as much as half of the available lanes of traffic. So the bands would seem to be positioned in a pattern to help maintain order. You’ll maybe see two or three floats, then a police car and some band parents blowing whistles and yelling at you to move back, then the band comes through. I got caught in the arm with a baton once when I didn’t back up far enough.  That thing hurt! Those parents were not joking around.

But really, the bands in these parades, most of which are made up of middle school and high school students, are really good.  Like … REALLY good. And the parade routes are several hours long.

Bernie and I watched about half the parade from our midcity location before taking a shortcut to the French Quarter and catching the end of the parade there a few hours later (like, seriously, we first caught the parade at 8:30 a.m., took our detour about an hour after that, then we caught up with the parade, and had time to wait in line “and” eat an entire assortment of food from a food truck before we saw the end of it around 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m.). But even then, the parade doesn’t really end when it hits the Quarter. It just turns into a giant, miles-wide street party.

The atmosphere of Mardi Gras truly is amazing.  It showcases the tremendous resilience of New Orleans’ people and the cultures they come from and cultivate together in a way that is remarkably uplifting. And people are so genuinely kind and supportive of each other in this time. No matter what details fade from my memory, I think I’ll always have that.

My favorite moment of Mardi Gras, and I think the moment that highlights this genuine fun-loving spirit of New Orleans, was down on the banks of the Mississippi River, where a brass band and an assortment of hippies (for lack of a better word) gathered to play, dance, sing, and drink — four of my favorite things — by the waterfront. You haven’t lived until you’ve hung out with a grown man dressed as a unicorn singing the “Sesame Street” song “Rubber Ducky” accompanied by a brass band.

I feel like I am truly living here. Truly, for the first in a long time.

That isn’t to say everyone and their mother should move to New Orleans. Far from it — New Orleans has its messes (though that reminds me, shout-out to the city’s sanitation workers, seriously — very impressive cleanup after Mardi Gras!).  But I do definitely advocate for allowing oneself to be extensively challenged by either moving or taking up the study of something that allows you the opportunity to engage in self-exploration. This time has been incredibly valuable for me, and whether New Orleans is my forever home or not, I know I’ll always carry it with me.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Power, In The Age Of DAPL, BLM And The 2016 Election

There’s a lot of extreme emotion in the air this week. It’s tangible. I see it across my social media feeds and dripping between words spoken and unspoken at home, work and play. Most people I know, myself included, are in a constant state of vacillation between disappointment, rage, despair, determination and just plain old fatigue.

Other people are rejoicing, some of them in spray painting racist graffiti in Philadelphia, or pulling Hijab off of Muslim women while hurling racial slurs and obscenities at them in California and Louisiana.  Yet they’re not the ones being told to calm down for some reason.

This is what many of us were afraid of, but not surprised, to see coming. History’s already shown us what happens whenever there’s racial “progress”: privileged classes tend to respond with a fierce attempt to maintain the status quo. These attempts often far outweigh and outlast any “progress” previously made. More on that in a second.

I put the word “progress” in quotes because it’s a really relative term, if you think about it. By a lot of standards, President Obama has been quite progressive (health care, marriage equality, etc.). By other standards, he’s either not been progressive enough (see: criminal justice reform), or he’s been just another branch of the oppressive class (see: his deportation record).

I also put the word “progress” in quotes because not every attempt to move society beyond oppression is seen as a positive by every individual. Take for instance Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Most of us would probably not be down with the actions he took to free himself and his fellow slaves by killing entire white families left and right, but his goal of freedom in the context of the very real risk to his life that he faced in order to even consider pursuing it at all can’t be ignored.

Which brings us back to historical backlash. By the time Turner’s rebellion was over, approximately 51 white Americans were dead. But more than 250 slaves were tortured and/or killed (including Turner himself) in retaliation. Two. Hundred. And. Fifty. Think on that for a second.

Think also about the period of American History known as Reconstruction after the Civil War. For about 12 years after slavery was abolished, particularly in places like New Orleans where I’m living now, there were black-owned businesses, black politicians, educators and artists who rose up and flourished, until some white people got a little uncomfortable and created this thing called Jim Crow (maybe you’ve heard of it), which heralded an era of oppressive laws, exponential prison growth and straight-up murder that lasted for almost 80 years. Eighty. Yet another example of backlash that far outweighed and outlasted the “progress” of the previous years.

Fast forward a few generations to the Black Lives Matter movements and Dakota Access Pipeline opposition of the past few years. In both arenas, prayerful vigils by largely minority members of the population have been met with massive displays of aggression by those who are supposed to have sworn to protect them.

Now you might argue that “not every protest has been peaceful,” etc. But consider for a second the following: There is an inherent power imbalance between myself, as a therapist, and my clients. As such, I am bound by a code of ethics that promotes the creation and maintenance of a safe and respectful environment for my clients, regardless of how they might lash out at me. I don’t think it’s so far out of line to expect police, who also carry a great deal of power and are similarly bound by an oath to serve and protect the population, to strive to maintain a standard of safety and respect as well. Actions like the dumping of protectors’ confiscated items on the side of the road from a garbage truck captured live on video in North Dakota this past month do nothing to support this.

Consider also that when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series a couple of weeks ago, nobody was tear-gassing or shooting rubber bullets into the crowd of fans that was lighting cars on fire and smashing glass in the streets. It only seems to be when an oppressed class of people react against acts of oppression that those in power suddenly multiply and posture to shut it down.

I want to be clear that I don’t condone violence of any kind. It should also be said that often the level of aggression shown at protests is often escalated, if not by the law enforcement, from nonlocal “voluntourists” who don’t have to live with the results of their actions in that community. They can throw a bottle or firework, fly back to their home state and blend right back in to their old lives.  But those tested and true organizers on the ground, whose homes and lives depend upon their actions, not to mention the response of those with whom they’re attempting to engage, their actions will more closely reflect that desire for peace in their time.

So what’s my point? My point is there’s a historical precedent for everything we’re seeing in our world today, and you should know it. You should know it because if you don’t, history is bound to keep repeating itself and lives will literally be lost. I for one don’t feel like standing by and letting that happen.

So what am I doing? And what can you do?

New Orleans is hosting a #NoDAPL solidarity event next week, as are countless other cities across the country (you can visit this link to learn more and find one in your area). I’ll be attending.  I also encourage you to learn more about local and national organizations taking a stand for minorities of all walks of life, populations that — if they aren’t facing outright aggression already — will likely be facing some in the months and years to come.

I see LGBTQA+ groups advocating for trans individuals to get their passports and other IDs lined up with their identified gender now, before laws potentially change to make that more difficult. I see Black Americans and women developing social media codes to communicate that they aren’t OK so help can be sent if they can’t escape a hostile situation. Get in on all of this — get connected to the people these things matter to, learn their history and lift up their voices.

And don’t just do this online. Do it offline, too.

The holidays are coming up. Talk to your family members. Try to hear and understand their frustrations, and confer to them with compassion, but also urgency, that in order for all lives to matter, the voices of the marginalized and disenfranchised must matter as well. Lives literally depend on this.

Together we can keep moving beyond oppression no matter what cheetos-haired, howling, nationalist obstacles might try to stand in our way.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — New Life, New Challenges

It’s been some time since my last post on Unheralded. There are a few reasons for this:

The start of the fall semester is always a busy time, especially since it follows a summer PhD residency for me, the second — of three — of which I completed just this past July.  But ultimately, the heaviest hitting contributing to my busy-ness this particular fall is the fact that I recently moved across the country from my hometown of Grand Forks. Surprise (if you didn’t already know)!

For the longest time, I was hesitant to say where I was going or why, only that I had left my position of clinical assistant professor at the University of North Dakota after a long and arduous fight to preserve the school’s music therapy program, which remains slated for suspension despite countless efforts of some of the most magnificent faculty and students I have ever had the privilege to know.

But my reasons for leaving North Dakota aren’t really what this post is about.

This post is about the process of finding the place I chose to start anew, why I felt such a need to be so closed-lipped about the transition early on and what I hope to be learning and sharing on this blog in the coming time I’ll be spending here, however long that may be.

First, for those of you just dying to know where I went — if you don’t already know — “here” is now New Orleans. Quite the shift from the pastoral tundra! But more on that later.

At the time of my departure from North Dakota, my life felt like one giant failure.  My husband and I had been going through fertility treatments to no avail. An attempt to start a commission on Diversity and Inclusion in Grand Forks was met with everything from ambivalence to outright animosity from some members of my local community, and to top it all off by mid-March, I was facing the loss of my livelihood and the demise of a program from which I had graduated myself in 2008.

It seemed like for every spark of light I attempted to create, there were clouds twice as big overhead just overflowing with darkness and rain. I was harassed online by a white supremacist who utilized photos from my Twitter Feed to claim I was corrupting youth in my work at UND, and several diversity -themed Facebook Events I was part of were spammed by this same individual and his followers — some of whom were local to Grand Forks — with horrific images and comments alleging alternately that I was an ISIS lover and that I deserved to be set on fire, hit by a car, etc., etc.

Meanwhile, I had total strangers in my hometown telling me my life wasn’t that bad, to stop making so much out of nothing, calling me a fascist who wanted to silence their free speech and offering me all sorts of tips on where I could shove my concerns about the world, a world that suddenly felt entirely too small and exposed.

I was easily recognizable as one of few people of color in my community (and a vocal one, at that), and combined with all of the previously mentioned stressors, by May I felt as though I had no privacy, no space to breathe and no way to recuperate in any sort of meaningful way from what I think we can all agree was a pretty rough year.

Enter New Orleans.

I had started applying for jobs all over the country the moment the news of my program’s suspension broke because I thought, “this is it, I’m gonna be out of a job any minute!” And in those first few weeks after the decision was announced, I applied for just about every open music therapy position I could find. None of the positions I was applying for particularly moved me at the time, I just literally thought I had no job security where I was.

I actually remember even resisting to apply for the position I now hold in New Orleans because it was south of the Mason-Dixon line and being a woman of color in an interracial relationship and so fresh out of an already stressful environment, part of which was related to my race, I really wasn’t feeling like the South was worth the headache.

But then I was flown down for an in-person interview and everything changed.  People warned me about the humidity in advance, told me it would feel like a suffocating wet blanket. But when I first stepped out of the airport into that “air you can wear,” as some call it, I was instantly in love.  That wet blanket felt comforting and nourishing.

And the RAIN. Let me tell you about the New Orleans rain. There truly is nothing else like it. During hurricane season — which was barely beginning when I interviewed but in full tilt by the time we moved — that rain can announce itself with a fury that surprises you if you aren’t prepared for it. No gradual buildup or drizzled warning, just instant downpour.

I learned to carry an umbrella with me everywhere. And I found this oddly comforting. too.  Like it was some sort of divine acknowledgement that yup, life can sure flip your world upside down sometimes, whether you like it or not, but better to buck up and prepare for it than stay indoors all day.

Best — and probably most necessary — of all for me, I wasn’t so visually exposed as a person of color in New Orleans. I could blend in. My husband and I recently attended the Beyonce Formation Tour on its New Orleans stop, and it dawned on me as I was trying to help our Uber driver find us after the show that it was actually easier for me to tell him to look for my husband as “the white guy in the checkered shirt” than it was to use my default self-descriptor of “I’m the black person.”

I am part of a big enough collective now that multiple individual dimensions of my character matter. The texture of my hair, the deepness of my skin’s pigment, my accent, all of these are indicators of a familial and cultural history that is valued here. People love hearing about where I’m from and where my family lived before the place I was born because it adds to the spice of their community.

And I love learning from others as well. There are so many black professionals in New Orleans. It makes me wonder if part of the reason so many nonblack people think we all live off welfare in the ghettos of hell is because they’ve never had the opportunity to live or travel somewhere where black people are the educated, “working” majority. Not just visible in the streets but visible in places of education, health care and beyond. But that’s another blog post!

Now none of this is to say that North Dakota is a terrible place that failed me and continues to fail every person of color who ever lives there. North Dakota is full of complications, and yes, I believe I personally was failed as a black professional by the institution I used to work for, but NoDak will always be “home” to me.

And believe me when I say New Orleans is no nirvana of racial peace and harmony, either. There are deep, fascinating, heartbreaking divides here that I really have yet to explore but am very much aware of.

Every place has its issues.  But I think that where a person finds themselves internally in their lives often requires an external environment that can match, nourish, support and challenge them. And for me, in the most internal turmoil of my life, I have needed New Orleans —  and its rain to match; its unpredictable wildness feels oddly reassuring to me.

But I’m also aware that challenges exist, and that more challenges will come.  Some already have. But this is where I feel I need to be at this time in my life in order to continue the work toward crafting the best version of myself, in the interest of doing the most good that I can for the world.

I was quiet about the transition initially out of fear for my safety. I didn’t need my white supremacist heckler to digitally follow me across the country and sic new local cronies on me (especially when the cronies in the heart of Louisiana were likely to be more deeply rooted and organized).

But also I’ve felt guilty. I felt like I had abandoned my students in North Dakota and failed all of the people who looked up to me for being “such a fighter.” But as I’ve been taking these first few months of distance to be silent, resettle and replenish myself, I know now that the fight in me never died. It’s still burning.  It’s just had to be relocated.

Sometimes, the wind changes and you just have to adjust in order to keep your light protected and allow it to shine at its brightest. And eventually, you pray the light will burn brightly enough to reach the place you left; so they’ll know you are OK, yes, but also so they will be able reap some of the benefit you always meant for them to experience. Because no matter how far away a person relocates, a piece of themselves — and that care that initially lit their fire — always remains connected to the place they left.

So I’ve relocated. But I hope to stay connected.

Some specific avenues I can already see myself exploring are the ways in which “North Dakota Nice” mirrors “Southern Charm,” expanding on my theory of the Black Professional as a gateway to better understanding Black America in general and looking at the ways in which wealth inequality can double-down on racial inequality right beneath our noses.

It’s really quite intriguing how New Orleans, like many cities, seems to have these vastly disparate entities living in parallel universes within it; the Southern elite and the working poor coexist right on top of each other, in completely different worlds, traveling in different circles and yet inhabiting the same city, sometimes within mere steps of each other.

A Walgreens noted for the homeless population that loiters around it is situated right next to the city’s largest for-profit hospital. A block away from one of the seediest streets in America sit some of the best, most expensive restaurants at which one could ever have the pleasure of dining.

In many ways, this happens in North Dakota, too, albeit with a few more miles between disparities. But all that and more surrounds each of us every day at any given moment. And for the first time in a long time, I look forward to exploring such things again, online and off. And I hope that light reaches you back home. I really do.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Let’s Talk About Privilege For A Second…

Got your attention in the headline, didn’t I?

Contrary to what you might be thinking in this moment, I’m not actually going to be talking about White Privilege (though I have before — and I can again).

In this moment, in the aftermath of terror attacks across the world (Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and more — terror has struck many places in recent history) that give understandable rise to fear and sadness, I want to actually speak about a privilege that even I have: religious privilege.

At any moment, I can walk down the street of my hometown without anyone knowing what religion I practice. I can conceal it if I wish. My skin color may lead a person to be concerned for other reasons (because ‘”not immediately labeled as a threat” is not a privilege I have in the arena of race, unfortunately), but my religion? No one ever seems to worry about that.

My heart goes out to my friends who walk through the world wearing the hijab, niqab, turbans or other religious garments that cause people to instantly judge them. They can’t hide (though let me be clear, hiding is not the goal here; being allowed to live your faith without fear of oppression or violence, however, is).

I do not fit the narrative we’ve put out into our societies about what a “terrorist” is. Therefore, I don’t face that level of scrutiny in that area. I have that privilege.

“So what?” you may ask (and many have asked, when I talk about White Privilege), “Am I supposed to feel guilty for something I can’t control?”

No. Because guilt doesn’t fix anything.

But actions do.

My friends who are Muslim live in a world that chooses to label them without really seeing them or knowing anything about them, let alone speaking to them.  So learn about them. Read about their religion from their own scholars, read about them from outside scholars (diversify your source pool, don’t just take one person’s word for it). Speak with them directly.

Now I don’t mean find a random Muslim on the street and accost them with questions. Generally, I find that no sane person appreciates such interactions.

But I do encourage the exploration of multicultural events in which Muslim believers are a part. I do encourage the building of relationships.

Then, once you’ve done that — once you’ve reached outside of yourself to learn more and connect with the real people of the Muslim religion — start to advocate. This can take the form of anything from the simple correction of misinformation on social media to serving as a physical human shield between those who would seek to terrorize the world and those who have been terrorized enough. Use your privilege to amplify those still peaceful voices that are too often unheard.

Because where people are heard, people can be better understood, and people who are better understood are better valued — and better utilized — in society to help all of humanity live side by side in harmony.

Unity through diversity. This is what terrorists really fear. This is what we have the power to create.

So let’s create it.

 

 

 

 

 

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — A Tale Of Two Conversations (About Diversity)

One is the best of times …  one is the worst of times …

I’ve been very fortunate to be invited to participate in several speaking engagements of late. Each of them has been unique in their own way — the setting, size and age ranges of the audiences, the length of time and level of detail to which we’re able to speak. All of these things can serve to amplify the strengths or challenges of a conversation.

But what I find contributes the initial spark to that amplification actually comes from a very small and intimate place, and that’s inside the very first question posed to me by the very first audience member on whom I call to speak.

That “first question” can dictate the entire tone or direction of future questions.  It’s why many a phony psychic will plant associates in the audience to direct them toward the first “presence in the room.”  It’s a very vulnerable place to be.  So I can understand the very real desire to steer such conversations in directions that can be anticipated and for which one can prepare.

But I embrace this vulnerable position with open arms because I believe that honest connections and sustainable growth can only come from letting people speak their minds without interference. Because they may know something I don’t, something that could strengthen the conversation, our relationship, or even the world, more than they could if I tried to steer things somewhere predetermined without giving them a chance to share that knowledge.

I believe in meeting people where they are.

So I often open the Q & A portion of any presentation I give by saying, “I am a black woman who grew up in a predominantly white community. I do not offend easily. Anything you have ever wished to ask a person of color, I will hear it.”

And I do. I’ve taken all manner of questions from all manner of people, well- intentioned or otherwise.

But it’s just that — intention that I believe has the most power inside that “first question” that can set the tone for the remainder of an event. Someone can ask about the same thing two different ways and end up leading the conversation in two very different directions, depending on how the speaker responds. I’ll provide a few examples.

“What is the value in talking about racism?” vs. “Why are we still talking about racism?”

One of those questions is set up from a genuine place of wanting to understand why something is important. The other contains the implication that  “something” is not important. Both are biased, yes, but only one is productive.  Far better to ask someone why something means so much to them than to dismiss them or their needs entirely.

“What do you think it will take to ‘reach the mountaintop?” as Martin Luther King said,” vs. “Martin Luther King said judge not ‘by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’ why are you judging?”

Both reference MLK Jr. and the struggles we face today to reconcile his words with our day-to-day lives. But one is set up to locate and explore solutions, while the other is set up as a trap to put the speaker on the defensive rather than enter into any sort of collaborative effort.

Conversations — and ultimately relationships — thrive best through collaborative effort, through systems working together. When collaboration is not present, no one learns a thing. No one grows. And without growth, ideas stagnate and provide breeding ground for infections and ultimately, death.

So if you ever find yourself in that crucial place of asking the “first question” to a speaker, consider, are you looking to meet this person where they are, or just tell them where you are? Are you setting up a collaboration, or a trap?

Like I said earlier, we all have biases. Sometimes speaking from a place of bias is unavoidable. But the decision to collaborate or trap is always a choice.

So again, if you ever find yourself asking the all important “first question,” and if that speaker you’re asking is me, even if you don’t make those considerations before you ask me your question, trust that I will always strive with my answers to meet you where you are and collaborate with you to reach a better future for all of us.

Because I believe that engaging in such challenging conversations is how we build the tools necessary to scale the mountaintop of equality. No one can do it alone. We have to work together, even in the worst of times, in order to live in the best of times.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — ‘Someone Else’s Job’: Defining A Responsibility In Diversity Work

A subject frequently brought to my attention whenever I discuss issues of diversity and inclusion is that of responsibility.

For what perceptions or actions am I personally responsible?  Is it my job to make sure people don’t see me as an “angry black woman,” or is it the responsibility of another individual to recognize biases as they occur and do their best to avoid letting such things cloud their decisions about me?

Is it a city’s job to create commissions to address specific community issues or is the burden on private citizens to bring every individual concern to our general government bodies, whether or not one exists, to address our specific needs?

There are many who may be answering these rhetorical questions with, “No, that’s not my job or the city’s, it’s yours!” Or maybe you’re answering just the opposite, that yes, it IS the city’s job to create bodies that are specific to issues and concerns, just as it is an individual’s responsibility to be aware enough of their own biases to try and act rationally despite them.

What if I told you that my answer to these questions was “All of the Above?”

I may not be able to control anyone’s perception of me, but I can absolutely make a conscious effort not to act in any way that might see me deposited into any stereotypical category as a woman of color.  And I can absolutely be mindful of how my inherent biases — because we all have them — might attempt to impact the decisions I make, and balance my actions accordingly.

I absolutely can bring my concerns to the city council or mayor’s office as I have them — and I have — but the city also can absolutely meet me — and others who share similar concerns and needs — halfway with commissions that are tailored to meet those specific needs.

Grand Forks has done just that with our Youth Commission, and we’ve done it with our Blue Ribbon Commission on Social Infrastructure.  Why should diversity and inclusion be any different?

Sometimes, it’s is all too easy to look at something and say, “That’s someone else’s job.” But I get it, sometimes there’s stuff that we just don’t have the ability to fix.  But when the need is present and the resources are there, far better to look at the person next to you and ask “how could we share the load on this?” than to write it off altogether and walk away.

Grand Forks has promised to be a city that is a place of safety, affordability, health and engagement and of support for our youth.  Diversity is part of that. And we’ve all got a role to play.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — A Case For Mind Blowing Experiences

I started my doctorate this summer (I know, I’m crazy, you may never hear from me again).

One of the most memorable pieces of advice I received before I started this process was to be aware that I would be learning “increasingly more about increasingly less” (I don’t remember who said this — see, the memory loss has already begun). That is to say, I will be becoming an expert (learning increasingly more) within an incredibly narrow scope (increasingly less).

I was prepared for this.

What I was not prepared for was that my mind would need to be completely blown open first before I could even begin to narrow my scope.

First, I’ve had to ensure that my lens was pointed where I thought it was pointed. I was trained as a therapist in a very Humanist approach — think “Hippie Drum Circles” — but with an appreciation and instilled knowledge of Cognitive-Behavioral “Talk” Therapy, so that’s what I always thought I was: a Humanist with a CBT bend.

But I’m learning now that my lens has been colored by things such as critical race theory, indigenous perspectives, feminism and post-colonial constructs that I have always carried but never fully realized as elements of my scholarly scope. Then, there’s chaos theory, existentialism and all these other lenses that I’ve had to force myself to “try on” in order to confirm they don’t fit me, or at least don’t fit me as comfortably as others do.

And I’ve done all this alongside an international cohort of my peers over a three-week residency that will kick off the next several years of my life, so goodness knows there’s still more mind blowing to come.

All this to say that, while I know I won’t know everything about all the things when I leave my PhD program, just the awareness of how deep the roots of that fundamental fact go, really coming to know and respect that I won’t come out of this knowing everything, is more crucial to my scholarly growth than I ever realized.

Just learning this month to open myself to seeing how many ways there are to view the few things I do hope to amass knowledge about has been truly changed me forever.

I think everyone should go through this at some point in their lives. Not the PhD necessarily, but the mind blowing: that cracking open, explosion of one’s world views. I have found in this process a true sense of the vastness of our world — and the vastness of our knowledge base as human beings. And with that comes a newfound respect for the unique experiences and backgrounds of my fellow earthlings.

Imagine if more of us exposed ourselves to such processes on a regular basis? What might we learn? What might we share? What might we do?

Now I can hear the excuses flowing already. You may be telling yourself “That’s cute, but I can’t afford a PhD,” or “What, this girl thinks she’s better than me? Pfft.” The answer to all those comments is this: I’m no better than anyone, and the piece of paper I’ll get at the end of this journey of mine isn’t the point here.

There are ingredients to this process that I think anyone can — and should —sample as often as possible in their lives, not only in order to enrich their own experiences, but to make our world a better place for future generations.

Mind blowing should be a continuous process, one that constantly challenges you to grow and create growth within and around you.

So I say again: imagine what might be learned, shared, and done … if we talked more often with people who were different from us? People who came from different places, ages, and backgrounds?

… If we traveled or read more often, looked into and learned more about the history of our cultures, environments and ways of thought?

… If we took time to write and reflect more often, on our own experiences, seeking new and unique ways to express the intangible?

What might we learn? What might we share? What might we do?

I don’t have the answer. I may never have the answer. That’s not the point. The point is in the process. It’s in the action of learning, the action of sharing, the action of “doing.” I’m looking forward to a lifetime of this kind of action. And I’m looking forward with much gratitude to acting alongside any and all others who would embark on this same journey with me.

Who knows where it will take us!

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Over, Down And Around: The Challenge Of ‘Playing’ Real Life

I have been quiet for quite a while. Online at least.

Every once in a while, I like to pull back from posting or commenting on hot-button issues on the Internet just to watch people’s behavior. By doing this, I get a sense of what the most common arguments are, which of them seems to have the most staying power or traction and what kinds of tactics are being used in those arguments that sustain most strongly.

My primary reasons for doing this are the following: First, I hope to learn more about the issue by listening to the people it directly affects; and second, once I’ve gained a thorough knowledge of the issue, I hope to be able to most effectively form my own opinions and arguments on the matters at hand to set clear goals for the future of their engagement.

It’s almost like a game when you approach issues that way: biding time on the field looking for the right moment to make a move.

But lately, there’s been a third reason I’ve been retreating from online interaction lately: I just haven’t felt like playing these days.

The recent shooting of nine people of color in a prominent African-American church left me really struggling with how to go on promoting productive discussion about racism in a country with people who would simplify this complex issue to one of flags, mental illness or gun control.

Then, the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality came out, and I watched Facebook turn into a sea of rainbows, all the while knowing in my head that the battle for equality still wasn’t over. In fact, members of the LGBTQA+ community and predominant churches of color have seen a rise in hate crimes against them in recent weeks.

There’s clearly been plenty to talk about. Plenty to respond to. And yet, as I saw all this unfold, I felt powerless to comment on it. It was like watching someone play soccer with a human skull. These were people’s lives, reduced to memes and cartoons, sound bytes and click bait. Somehow, it just seemed wrong to make a platform out of any of it, to step onto the field and join the game.

But that’s the real rub at the heart of these kinds of issues; situations like this are not meant to make spectacles of, yet our society does it time and time again, and we can’t help ourselves.

Every pundit, hell, every individual, has a unique lens through which they view the world, and that lens colors their perception of these types of events. There’s no way around that. And some of us feel compelled to speak to the truth of our perspectives and how they relate to our larger world as a whole. No way around that either. Nothing in this world ever happens in a bubble.

But if you think about it, I mean really think about it, that kind of sucks. Think of any family member who you’ve lost recently, and consider someone standing at their funeral and using the pulpit as an opportunity not to talk about your loved one but to talk about some sort of larger issue that they felt your love one represented.

For some, if it’s an issue that they feel personally resonates with them or one that would’ve resonated with their loved one, this could be a comfort.

But what if that larger issue being discussed on behalf of the one you love isn’t one that you or they would agree with? What if it is something that you directly oppose, or something that distorts or skirts the core truth of the issue?

I think that’s what I’ve been struggling with most about the events of this past month. It hasn’t just been about the deaths or rulings themselves, it’s been about how the media and others have been talking about them.

Many have chosen to downplay what happened in Charleston, S.C., avoiding words like “terrorism” or “hate.” Those who do use those words are accused of overblowing the situation, or “making it all about race.” Members of the LGBTQA+ community already are facing the effects of downplaying as well: now that marriage equality is a reality, many think the fight is over, that people should “stop complaining about discrimination now.”

Clearly, these are complicated issues. Clearly, these merit action and discussion. But how do you step onto the field and make contact with those playing the game without becoming complicit in the desecration of human lives?

I’m a big believer in the power of amplification. I try to allow those directly affected by a situation to speak for themselves and to serve as a bullhorn for the words and needs of the most disenfranchised of those voices.

So that’s what I’ve been doing lately and what I encourage others around me to do as they read and learn more about the shooting in South Carolina and get to know the struggles of LGBTQA+ America.

Look into eyewitness testimonies of hate crime, specifically the words said by perpetrators. Watch videos of interviews with the families of victims; don’t just read, watch. Participate in live, offline discussions whenever possible. Hear the calls for prayers, peace and compassion. Be an observer of responses from community members in light of tragedy.

Then and only then should you act in a manner that amplifies the voices and needs of those most in need. Let them know they are being heard and that their loved ones will not be forgotten. In that way, you’ve entered the field, but you’ve taken the “ball” out of play. You’ve held it in the air and forced the players to look at it for what it is: a human life impacted by their actions.

There may be those who will still try to insist on playing the game. You grabbing the “ball” in a game of soccer may be seen as an attempt to play keep-away, and when that happens, our sense of ownership may kick in, and we find ourselves inadvertently playing the new game, refusing to give up ground. As I said earlier, sometimes we humans can’t help ourselves.

But there are lots of “balls” on the field. Trying to pick up and hold every single one is an exercise in futility. Instead, pick up what you can, and work alongside others to end the game and take life off the playing field. Stress the urgency of talking through conflict, rather than mindlessly kicking it back and forth.

Read. Think. Listen. Converse. Find common ground, but don’t hide from the uncomfortable truths. Only then do we really stand a chance of being able to bury these issues with the proper respect once and for all.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — In Defense Of Slime-Finders

I gave myself a new nickname today. I kinda like it.

The whole thing started when an acquaintance online made a gardening analogy to assert a belief that I was “looking for problems where there weren’t any” (an argument I’ve heard many times before) when discussing issues of race.

Essentially what this person said was that worms were a reality of any garden — they’re slimy and gross, yes, but if you go looking for them, you’ll never enjoy the garden, to which I responded:

“Some of us have to be slime-finders.”

You wouldn’t tell an exterminator that they’re looking for problems where there aren’t any, would you? You wouldn’t tell a police officer to stop looking for trouble.

Our society needs slime-finders.

Slime-finders are the people who report abuse and damage when they see it. Slime-finders are the people drawing our attentions to dire situations in corners of the world where many of us wouldn’t even think to look and putting their lives on the line to do so. Slime-finders deserve our respect.

Now, of course, there are some credentials required. I wouldn’t tell an exterminator “Nah, you go on, dude, I can handle these cockroaches on my own” any more than I would ask an officer of the law to just hand me his gun and move along. Not everyone can be (or should be) a slime-finder.

Being a slime-finder requires a deep knowledge of the field in which you’re finding slime. It requires a close, trusting, working relationship with the people living in those fields. And it requires a willingness to stay the course and finish the job even if those outside of those fields choose to criticize you for obstructing their garden view.

Being a slime-finder is not an easy task. You see some of the ugliest dirt in environments most people wouldn’t dream of entering. But you see some of the best sides of humanity there, too.

You see people working with great care, often donating their time in public service for these fields in which they’ve dedicated their lives to seeing positive change brought about so no child ever has to feel as though their corner of the world doesn’t matter. You see people living in these fields who truly have nothing to give, yet they offer up places at their dinner tables, embraces, and kind words because they want, no, “need” to be part of the process, to show the slime-finders in their neighborhoods that they are supported in their work.

So, next time you encounter a slime-finder, consider their history — their background, the work that they do in their community. Consider the types of relationships they’re trying to build. And if you don’t know, ask.

Good slime-finders will reveal their goodness to you through the impacts surrounding their actions as well as their words. And when you find a good slime-finder, if you stop to really listen and take note of his or her deeds, you might find their work to be more necessary than you think.

NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — ‘You Don’t Know’

We’ve all got “stuff” that makes us passionate. Some of that “stuff” leads us to say (and do) horrible things to each other.

There’s a lot of “stuff” going on out there in the world this week that has lots of people saying (and doing) lots of things. I don’t want to talk about any of the “stuff.” Not in any particular detail at least.

I want to talk about the things we say to each other. One thing in particular: “You don’t know.”

I find the aforementioned phrase usually comes as part of a package deal like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” or “You don’t know anything, so you don’t get to comment.”

Sometimes, that first statement is true. Sometimes, that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to hold an opinion on the subject. Or that further conversations on said subject wouldn’t be productive or worth having.

I take a lot of verbal abuse in my line of work — as a therapist, as an educator, as an activist. And that phrase makes up a lot of that abuse. People like to try and back me into a corner with “you don’t know.”

It’s almost as if for them, proving that I don’t know enough on a particular subject to satisfy them means their perspective is the right one. That the conversation is over because “I don’t know.”

But what if we looked at this phrase in a new light? What if “I don’t know” was followed with words like “but I’d like to” or “please help me understand!” Imagine what depths of previously undiscovered learning we might find, what fresh perspectives might awaken our compassion and lead to the betterment of all the negative “stuff” out there that otherwise threatens to make us into such crankier, lesser beings?

What would such a world even look like? I don’t know. … But I’d like to!