“You’ve Got To Know Your [Stuff]!”

Last week was my penultimate camp experience in Southern California. So far this summer, I have been too busy and too happy to miss home too much, but this week in California, exhaustion and homesickness really smacked me in the face. I arrived at camp like a zombie, so tired that I could barely maintain a conversation that required more than mumbles and grunts. I went to sleep Sunday night wondering how on earth I was going to make it through the week. Minerva shared her story with the camp on Monday night, and I was scheduled to start giving workshops on Wednesday. Looking back, I am glad that they pushed me later into the week, because I was able to realize how much it means to me to be teaching and engaging with the youth. Until I was able to meet with them, I felt empty. But once Wednesday afternoon rolled around, I got to talk to the youth about the death penalty and race, and seeing their expressions as they learned about the injustices of our criminal justice system helped me realize all over again why this summer is so meaningful and important to me. Originally, I had two main fears: 1) That I wouldn’t pick the “right” workshop topics to match youths’ interests, and 2) That I would face a lot of opposition to my workshops. Neither has been an issue this summer at all. For one, I no longer think that there are such things as “right” topics. I met a really incredible woman (and past Peace Intern from ’06!) this week at the Disciples National Convocation. Her name is Bonnie Osei-Frimpong (Bonnie, if you ever read this, please comment with the correct pronunciation of that name!). I only got twenty minutes to chat with her, but twenty minutes was more than enough. She filled those twenty minutes with the best advice I’ve gotten all summer. “You’ve got to know your [stuff]. BE SUBSTANTIVE. There’s plenty of muck in this world. You’ve got to be substantive.” Her own DPF experience taught her how to use twenty minutes to explore all that she can of the nooks and crannies of a conversation. While listening to her unleash her genius upon me, I realized that topics actually don’t matter THAT much. What matters is how well we listen to one another, and how much we challenge each other to see alternatives. For the life of me, I cannot remember what my past peace interns have said that have changed me so much. But I remember exactly how they made me feel—how I felt acknowledged and challenged and eager to unpack more. All it takes is one realization that maybe there are other answers and maybe there are better questions, and we get to be changed forever. There is no wrong topic, but there are wrong ways to approach topics, and there are wrong ways to approach people. Therein lies the crux. As for facing opposition, that almost hasn’t been a challenge this summer at all. I think the secret here is, as a past peace intern told me, to always tell my Truths. If I know I’m speaking from that space, from my own personal experience and concerns, then opposition can only help me unpack my Truths more. What’s so scary about that? Now, a confession: I had a third fear that I didn’t even know I had. I didn’t want to teach a workshop on Black Lives Matter, because I didn’t think I could handle it. I almost broke down completely in the airport when I saw the news on the Dallas shootings after the deaths of Alton and Philando. I had no idea how to talk about something so painful in front of a room full of people. This is an incredibly complex conversation. A lot of people think BLM is an anti-police movement—that is fundamentally untrue. The leaders of BLM have collaborated with researchers, activists, and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to create extensive policy goals aimed at understanding and solving the strenuous relationships that often exist between police and the communities they serve. This conversation with youth requires a lot of unpacking. What is systemic racism, and how does it affect us (sometimes unknowingly)? What is privilege? What is white privilege? What is it like to live in these communities where major tensions exist between the police and the community? What does it mean that our nation is talking about police as though they are separate and distinct from the communities they serve? Why have there been riots? Why don’t we say “All Lives Matter”? Don’t the cops have the right to use their guns if they feel afraid? I’m hearing Bonnie’s voice: “YOU’VE GOT TO KNOW YOUR [STUFF].” But Bonnie, can’t I just be a coward and keep putting this off? In California, I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer. After such a horrible week for our nation, I knew we needed to unpack what’s going on together, in the safe space of camp. We began the workshop in family groups, discussing what we already know about BLM and how that phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” makes us feel. Collectively, the group knew very little about the movement. Among the comments: It’s a popular hashtag. It should be All Lives Matter instead. Police brutality. Riots. Fighting for equality. I gave a brief history of the movement, explaining how it went from a Facebook status to a hashtag to a campaign with incredibly nuanced policy goals, then the family groups discussed how they feel about “Black Lives Matter” v. “All Lives Matter.” I passed out quotes from key figures in the movement who explain why they say Black Lives Matter. When it comes down to it, we know that all lives matter. That is not a question in our minds. (Although, I would definitely argue that the death penalty is one of the nation’s ways of disagreeing with that.) But after centuries of inequality and systemic racism, we are at a point where it is vital to ask: Does this nation actually believe that black lives matter? I’m not convinced, as we watch black bodies being aggressively man-handled, shot, and left in the streets, as we examine the racial disparities in our prison-industrial complex, and as we assess the inequities in access to quality education. After Alton’s death, the cop can be heard saying “Just leave him.” And let us not forget that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street for four hours, after being shot six times. Does this nation actually believe black lives matter? Let’s talk about it. After giving that workshop, I felt like it was the most important thing I’d ever done. I don’t mean for this to sound prideful; I mean that it felt right to be unpacking this together and challenging ourselves to ask the hard questions that matter. We must be ready and willing at all times to confront our messy world and our own thoughts. I truly believe that this is the only fight worth fighting.

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