Friday, July 20, 2018

On Race and the Confederate Flag

It was probably my second or third day at Rocketship when I noticed the flag flying two stories above Cleveland Ave. on Milwaukee’s Southside, hidden behind two spindly spruce trees. The design itself was unmistakable: a blue St. Andrew ’s cross adorned with thirteen white stars set upon a red background. It was none other than the Confederate battle flag—an icon revered by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and misguided “State’s Righters” and/or “Southern Heritage” fanatics.  

As a white man who has spent periods of my life living in rural America, I have become accustomed to seeing the Confederate flag proudly flown on front lawns, re-purposed into bumper stickers, fashioned into bikini bottoms, plastered onto refrigerators, and emblazoned on cheap coffee mugs peddled at road-side flea markets.  And while my reaction upon seeing the flag is always negative, I’ve become rather immune to its appearance—a privilege of “immunity” that is impossible for People of Color. The flag symbolizes too much hatred, too much violence, too much bigotry and unaccounted history. It simply cannot be ignored.

The flags calculated existence across the street from my school, however, elicited in me such a visceral reaction that I’ve reflected on the experience for nearly one year and have only now begun to articulate some thoughts. It’s not to say, of course, that the Confederate flag’s existence in other locales is more acceptable. But, within the context of my own life and, more importantly, within the political and cultural context in which this particular flag was flown, its appearance sparked within me a deep reflection on the meaning of the flag in general and, ultimately, why, in the 21st century, white Americans continue to revere and display this symbol that represents pain and suffering for millions.

Flags are powerful symbols. Within the confines of a piece of cloth, people’s national affinities are declared, their cultural identifies, linguistic heritages, and historical experiences are often affirmed. So, it’s easy to see why the Confederate battle flag has become such a touch-point for State’s Rights advocates and Southern Heritage promoters. Those individuals who continue to justify and perpetuate the flag’s existence do so within the framework of historical memory and identity. Whenever the flag comes under attack as an unrequited symbol of slavery and white oppression, their response is often to deflect the charge by claiming the flag is not a symbol of slavery, but is instead an icon of history and Southern cultural identity (regardless of the fact that flag is now flown throughout all 50 states). When I hear this argument, my first question is usually this: But what about now? The Confederacy as a nation is dead. The cultural markers of the Confederacy (plantation-based economies and slavery) are also dead. Its national symbol (the flag) is by all accounts a historical relic. It deserves to be remembered in a museum, as its purpose (to serve as a national symbol for the Confederate States of America) is no longer needed.

The Marquette historian Dr. James Marten argues that the meaning attached to historical symbols can and does change. When white supremacists gather around the bronze bust of a fallen Confederate general, they are redefining the meaning of the historical symbol changing it from a commemoration of the past, to an active representation of their modern ideology (in this case, a worldview fearful and antagonistic to an ethnically and culturally-diverse 21st century America). And the same is true for the flag.

The South-side of Milwaukee is an immigrant enclave. It’s a neighborhood made up of thousands of families working hard to provide a better future for their children. They are roofers, cooks, teachers, police officers, political representatives, and doctors. Rocketship reflects the demographics of our neighborhood. According to the Wisconsin Department of Education, over 97% of our students are of Hispanic/Latino descent. Many of them come from low-income households. Each morning, hundreds of parents drop their kids off at the school. And they drive past that flag, too. I’m sure they see it. And that’s the point of it, right? The person who has chosen to fly that flag, year round, across the street from a school where all of the students are students of color wants to convey a message. It’s not a message that commemorates the fallen soldiers at Antietam or Gettysburg. It’s not a message that celebrates Dixie or the heritage of Scotch-Irish ancestors felling southern pines in the Georgia Piedmont. No. It’s an intimidation piece. The purpose is to remind them of their “supposed” place in the society. Its existence is decidedly modern, commenting upon a political and cultural context relevant to 2018.

Yet, there are other battle flags waving across the street. They wave from the steel rafters of the school’s portico. They adorn the walls of the school and are hooked into the drop-down ceilings of the hallways. They are flags that represent not nation states, but universities. They are symbols with a modern meaning. And much like the flag across the street, they too convey a message to our students (and their parents). And the message is this: You belong. You can succeed. And that your future is the hope of our nation.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Teacher Reflection

I pedaled up to the main entrance of Rocketship Southside Community Prep and hurriedly stashed my bike. I was arriving late. That morning there was a 20-mile-per-hour headwind. Cold gusts howled down Milwaukee’s wide streets turning the entire city into a large harmonica. I crept across the city.  And as I rolled along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, I prepared myself for the flurry of activity that would befall me upon entering the building.

And make no mistake: It would be a lot.

And make no mistake: I was overwhelmed.

For I am a first year Special Education (ISE) teacher.

Upon entering the school, I was informed by my colleagues that our first grade cohorts would be leaving for a field trip to the Urban Ecology Center—a local nonprofit dedicated to giving urban youth first-hand experiences with conservation and the natural world.

“Great!” I thought. “While my first graders are gone, I’ll have time to catch up on my IEP paperwork, on my lesson plans, on my parent contacts, on my behavior intervention plans, on my schedule, on my….”

The list seemed endless.

I was looking forward to a morning of laser-focused paper-pushing.

I NEEDED this morning to feel prepared, to feel competent, to try to “get ahead.”

Then I was told by my SPED supervisor that I would have to go on the trip to help a student of mine named Peter.

My plans were dashed.

“There is no way I can go.” I thought. “I’ve got 8 other kids to teach and work with. Sacrificing their academics and learning so that one could learn about a butterfly’s life cycle was not worth it.”

That was my rationale.

Our wonderful para-professional (of course) agreed to go.

Issue resolved.


I remember the first time I worked with Peter. He was reluctant to come into my office. Tears welled up in his eyes as his mother assured him that I was going to be a great teacher (this, of course, was total conjecture. It was my first day. She had no idea if I was going to be a ‘great’ teacher—I sure didn’t feel like it). 

Reluctantly, Peter sat at my desk and whimpered. He wouldn’t talk. I prompted him by asking numerous questions. Nothing worked. At the end of our first 30-minute small group, I had yet to hear his voice, let alone know what his favorite color was, or what memory he cherished most from summer.

Slowly, however, Peter and I developed a functional working relationship. It was pretty straightforward: I would come into his class two times a day. I’d bring in my teaching tools: a numbers chart, a white board, a few dry erase markers, and some flashcards. We’d drill the names of numbers, the sounds of letters. I’d ask him to rote count to 100 and back, guiding and modeling for him whenever he was unsure of himself. I’d call on him to answer my questions and encourage him to speak loudly, confidently.

A lot of our time spent together was sedentary. It was comfortable for him physically, for Peter was born with a neurological condition that has weakened his limbs, negatively affecting his balance and motor skills.

Quickly, I noticed that he would become distraught often refusing to answer questions and beginning to cry if he felt too challenged or pushed.

Excuse the imagery, but at times Peter reminded me of my 1977 Yamaha Moped from my youth. It was a unique one-of-a-kind bike with a mounted 2-cycle engine. It had potential for power. Unfortunately, it was a temperamental machine. Nearly every time I kick-started the bike, I would have to lightly push in the choke to allow more gas to seep into the piston chambers, coaxing the bike to idle. Often, I’d flood the engine and it would stall out, forcing me to wait another 30 minutes.

And much like that bike, I had to take the time to learn about Peter—to figure out the areas where I could target teach and support him--to discover, if you will, the correct amount of gasoline to release into the combustion chamber of Peter’s own academic and social potential.

Teaching as an ISE teacher, I realized, is a delicate balancing act. One where I must be attuned to the voice of my students (often non-verbal), indicating where I am succeeding, at times pleading for assistance, and, most importantly, asking me to believe.  


Peter began to cry when he learned that a field trip was planned for the late morning. The change in his routine shocked his ability to cope. If indeed Peter was going on the trip, he made it clear that I would have to go with him. He began to point at me and worked furiously to grasp onto my hand.

I was now conflicted. I was telling myself that I had to choose between my desires to accomplish my paperwork and teach my 8 other students, or to travel with Peter to the Urban Ecology Center.

Realizing that Peter, through his grasping of my hand, had taken a major step in advocating for his own needs, I knew I had to go with him.

Throughout the morning, I had been engaging in a false choice. This was not about Peter vs. my other students. It was about Peter internalizing our lessons on empowerment. At Rocketship we often talk to our students about the importance of agency in the classroom, and I honestly couldn’t think of a better example of this lesson being lived out than in Peter informing me that he needed me to go on the trip.

So I went.

Our para-professional stayed at school.


As the class broke up into two groups, the students were wild with anticipation. Within the hour, we had acted out the life-cycle of a monarch butterfly, wiggling on our bellies as caterpillars and curling into cocoons. We analyzed the life-cycle of mammals, observing the physical changes that manifest when mammals mature into adulthood. And we got to touch the hard, scaly shell of the resident North American Box Turtle. Naturally, a planned hike along the banks of Menomonee River was the perfect way to end the trip. 

Peter held onto my hand tightly as we descended a grassy knoll, walking under an old rail-road bridge and across a gravel bike path. Aware that Peter needed both vision and balance supports, I walked next to him. When we cut through a patch of stiff, yellow cone flowers, I held his hand as he navigated through the thick roots and stems. When the rest of the class hopped from rock-to-rock as we followed the forest path that runs along the river, Peter grabbed the back of my shirt to maintain his balance as he picked his way through the stones. When the class ran ahead, so did he. When five students from his class scuttled up a steep, muddy embankment to inspect the burrow of a groundhog, Peter didn’t hesitate to follow.

I saw him gaining confidence by the minute. His innate curiosity began to burn bright. Peter was no longer being “held back” by either his shy demeanor or some physical “disability.”

At some point in our trip, it began to rain. Our group sought shelter under a high-way trestle, where we sang songs. When the rain subsided, our group made our way west along the railroad tracks, peeling off into a cove of spindly willow branches that tangled together to create a natural room (or clearing) just big enough for fifteen 6-year-olds to fit.  The hike leader had each of the students climb inside, where they mimicked the call of a few migrating birds.

Peter and I came in about 3 minutes behind everyone else—I had to carry him down the steep trail and helped him navigate through the curtains of spiraled willow leaves.

And as his classmates ahead of him began to file out through the narrow exit-way onto the path, I saw Peter glance up and look around at the canopy of green in which he was embraced. He was smiling widely.

And in the end, it was I who thanked Peter for the trip.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Educator Manifesto

My educator manifesto is a reflective one. It’s personal, actually. When I initially sat down to write this manifesto (2 weeks ago), I wrote down two statements:

1.       That I believe in the potential of all students.

2.       That I believe that teaching is the primary way to work for justice and equality.

And both of those statements are true. But the deeper I reflected, the more I began to think critically about my role as an ISE specialist at Rocketship.


I was the first born in a set of triplets. I’m older than my brother Jared by 2 minutes and older than Jonathan by 4.

We were small and underweight (as all multiples are), so we had to spend time in incubators. The doctors and nurses used color-coded onsies and bedding sheets to tell us apart. From birth, we were treated as a unit. Strangers and family alike would refer to us as “the boys” or the “Ault brothers”, or in reference to an individual, “one of the kids.”

Worst of all, sometimes we would be differentiated by a physical feature or a specific character trait: “Get the Ault kid with the curly hair.” Or “Jonathan, he is the smart one.”

As for me, I was deemed “the quiet one”—as if my adolescent shyness was the only defining feature of my character and my intricate person hood.

I hated this. I hated being a part of a whole. I hated the fact that people refused or had an inability to see me as an individual with all my complexity, likes and dislikes, struggles, and joys. I recognized this from an early age.

When we would go out to eat, I would sit at a different table.

When we would play organized sports, I refused to play on the same team.

When my parents attempted to dress us up in like clothing, I threw epic tantrums.

I was very, very stubborn.


One of the only places where I felt treated as an individual was in school. But it wasn’t because the teachers recognized my need for independence.

It was because at the age of 5, I was determined to have a learning disability.  

It was hard news for my parents and became a very complicated issue for the school district. Holding back a child is always a decision fraught with potential conflicts and tough conversations, but holding back a child that is a triplet is even more nuanced:

1.       What would this do to my confidence as a I aged?

2.       How would I be perceived by my brothers?

3.       How would I be able to explain that I’m a triplet, the same age of my brothers, but two grades behind?

My parents and a few of my teachers recognized that holding me back (for two years) would be a devastating decision, especially when I got to high school and middle school.

So, the Special Ed teacher and the reading specialist went to work.

They provided student tutors from local universities to meet with me after school—my indelible memory is when one of them purchased me my own cactuses and succulent plants that I used to decorate my room.

I recall the yellow manipulatives that I had at my desk during math lessons when I was in the general ed. class, and the pride I felt at being unique.

I remember the praises for the small, but substantial successes.

I remember the way in which my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Kilker, would lightly touch the bottom of my chin while working with me on letter sounds. Her patience and care for me still illicit deep feelings of gratitude almost 30 years later.

I remember my first grade teacher Mrs. Bennis who met with my parents weekly to assess my progress and who protected me from getting held back, working each and every day to assure them that I could succeed…

In the end, I was moved to a private school for 4 years, where I had more one-to-one attention, while my brothers stayed in public school.  Their interventions worked.


In 2013, I graduated from Marquette University with a Master’s Degree in Global History. At the end of the ceremony, my father asked to hold my diploma – I was the first person in my extended family to achieve this level of education.

He said he wanted to take it back to PGH. I asked him why. He said he wanted to show Mrs. Kilker and Mrs. Bennis the fruits of their labor.

Two teachers I had nearly 3 decades ago were the ones my dad wanted to thank first.

And that’s the importance of Special Education.

It’s believing in students no matter the odds.

It’s the power of advocating for families.

It’s the power of an imagined future that isn’t built on false hope, but one that is attainable.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

New Chapters

So much has to be written. Since the birth of our second daughter Madeline, Jamie and I have had a hard time eating regular meals, let alone blog. This year is nearly half over, and this is the first post.

One year ago to this day, I left Diaconia. I thought it would be the end of my tenure with the organization, but it was not to be. Since then, I founded the American affiliate of  Diaconia (Diaconia Connections) and have continued to work for the organization as a volunteer director. It's been incredibly rewarding, and I'm happy to say that we've been able to raise around 30,000 dollars for humanitarian causes. In fact, just this past month, I took a group of 5 individuals from the Milwaukee Presbytery to Ukraine and Moldova to visit with our partners and learn more about Diaconia's work abroad. It was a successful trip.

Anyways, I "left" Diaconia,  moved into a new apartment, placed Ada into daycare, and started my new job as an analyst at Spectrum. I thought I had a made a change that would last 2-3 years. But, alas, it was not to be.

Less than a year later, we're moving again. While we're moving only a few houses down, it's nevertheless a needed change. With our added child, Jamie and I need more space, and we're also looking for an apartment that will allow us to host family and friends from out of town. And I believe we got what we were looking for: a 3-bedroom, hard-wood-floored, bungalow.

And as of May 1st, I resigned from my position at Spectrum. My decision to leave my job was not so much an indictment of my place of employment but was actually a decision made out of deep reflection and clarity. Spectrum afforded me the wonderful opportunity to consult with numerous nonprofit organizations: museums, social service groups, advocacy organizations, and schools. Most of my work with the clients was behind-the-scenes research. I helped them articulate their strategic missions and visions, I wrote and edited final reports and white papers, and supported our staff of professional consultants. It was rewarding work because I knew what we were doing necessary and important. However, I know that I'm a communicator and realized, after about 9 months, that I needed to find a job where I was engaged in more face-to-face interaction. I needed a position that was more service-oriented, preferably with an organization that was grass-roots in attitude and management (for better or for worse).

After a lot of deliberation and much thought, I've made the decision to pursue a career in education. I've decided to join the organization Teach For America, which is an alternative certification program for young professionals and graduates who have an interest in education but have not necessarily studied education or been certified. I will be teaching in Milwaukee, WI, in a public school.

I don't really need to rehash all of the statistics, but Milwaukee has some of the United State's most shocking numbers when it comes to educational equity. Most of the problem stems from Milwaukee's hyper-segregation and history of economic exclusion and discrimination. Jamie and I live in the neighborhood of Riverwest. Less than one mile from our house is the neighborhood of Harambe. The zip code there is 53206. It is the most impoverished zip code in the state of Wisconsin, and it has the highest rate of incarcerated males IN THE COUNTRY. The community is resilient, but it's at a major disadvantage. African Americans in the state of Wisconsin have the United State's worst prospects for wealth accumulation and job growth. And, not surprisingly, the public schools are being called on to fix the problems, even if they're not given the resources to do so. Milwaukee Public Schools have high drop-out rates and their academic scores are often behind their rural and/or suburban peers. These numbers, however, are not an indictment of the inherent "inability" of poor students in urban Milwaukee, for they are usually the result of decades of state-wide under-funding along with an encroachment from choice/charter/and open enrollment schools that "leech" money from the public education system. (TFA places teachers in choice, charter, and public schools....opinions are my own).

I believe that equity in education is one of my generation's greatest civil rights battles. In the United States, children's futures are often predetermined based on where they live. Regardless of the ideals that we espouse as a country of "freedom" and "opportunity," the truth of the matter is this: opportunity exists for those children/students who live in regions where the property taxes cover the cost of the schools. There is very little of this in urban areas. The fact that our educational system is as unequal as our tax system is an embarrassment and it is a rejection of our most fundamental American ideals.

I want to learn more about this current crisis, and I want to see if I can be of any help. When I initially requested to teach, I asked that I teach history. The TFA staff told me that Milwaukee Public Schools are in dire need of special education teachers and that if I were willing, they would want me to pursue Special Education at the graduate level. I initially balked at the idea. However, after some weeks of reflection, I decided to accept my offer. I rarely talk about my own educational journey, but I realized that my experience may give me greater patience and insight to indeed help some of the school district's toughest students, because I was a "special ed" kid myself. (there is a lot more to write here, but I'm going to leave it at that).

I have no illusions as to how difficult the next two years will be.  I recognize that I have little in common with many of the students of color in Milwaukee. I have very little understanding of their life experiences, of their stresses, of the conversations that they have with their parents around the kitchen table. And if we were picking our teaching assignments based solely on the places where we would have the greatest impact and be able to relate the most, then I am 100% confident that I should be teaching in Appalachia. BUT,  reality is far more complex, and there is so much to learn from people and students with different backgrounds. 

This lack of knowledge humbles me. It makes me realize that my students have to be teachers as well. They have to teach me about their lives, of which, they are the experts. I can teach them about mine, about subject matter, about the ways in which we can relate to each other to move forward. It's not going to be easy, but I know it can work. I have to be open to their viewpoints, their passions, and interests in art, music, clothing, etc. I have to know when to let them lead in their learning and think critically about where I can push and motivate. Because of my skin color, because of my own family heritage and history, there are going to be times where there will be miscommunication, but if I were to boil down what I want my students to take from me, it would be this: That I believe in their inherent humanness and intelligence. That I believe their history is important and empowering. That I appreciate and respect their perspectives and lived experiences. That I care about them as individuals. That I recognize my own shortcomings and "blinders." And that I hold them to high standards because I believe in their abilities. 

Lastly, and briefly: As someone who has studied Global History and has had the opportunity to teach in Nigeria, I firmly believe in the power of history as a liberating force. I will be very proactive in my classroom in encouraging students to tell their own stories, to explore their family's histories, and to explore the literature, art, music, and architecture of African-American history, and Sub-Saharan African history. I personally believe that beyond all the emphasis on STEM and technology in the classroom (which are undoubtedly important), the single most redemptive piece of a "liberating" education is when People of Color are able to not only reclaim their own history, but to tell it. In so doing, they understand the agency within themselves that has been passed down for generations and they will begin to see that 1) they belong, that 2) their race and heritage have made this country/city stronger, and 3) that they can be proud and confident in their skin, in their language, and in their art.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Human Trafficking: Moldova - Personal Reflection

After nearly two hours of travelling, my Moldovan colleagues Adrian and Livia stopped the car in the middle of a gravel road at the top of a long, winding hill. They made their way to a rusted gate that demarcated the property line of a family that lived in a dilapidated house. Turquoise paint peeled away from warped, sun-bleached wooden planks, while the breeze sucked curtains out of broken window panes. The yard was bare, and rusted hulks of farm equipment could be seen through the crushed walls of a collapsed barn. There was no electricity, no running water, and the outhouse door was left ajar.

It was at times like these between Adrian, Livia, and me where our language barrier was most noticeable. I had no idea of their plans, so I just followed. Upon reaching the threshold of the gate, I caught a glimpse of an elderly women making her way to the door. She walked with a severe bend in her spine—most likely the consequence of years of farm labor and osteoporosis. With her came three children. Their ages varied from 10-16. There were two boys and a young girl. They didn’t speak to us.  After some hushed conversation, Adrian turned to me and waved me inside. I hesitated. I made it to the steps leading to the entrance, glanced at the children, and then turned back around. I walked across the yard, back through the gate, and stood by the car. I didn’t leave that spot for an hour.


In the summer of 2015, I travelled with three representatives from the Presbyterian Foundation to the European nation of Moldova to document the work of Diaconia Connections (the nonprofit I work for), and our Moldovan partners CASMED and ProCoRe. Our goal was to produce a video about the work being done to fight human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a reprehensible crime. And Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, is ground zero.  Cornered between Romania, Ukraine, and the Black Sea, the country has experienced years of economic dysfunction, political corruption, and civil war. For working-age adults and young people, opportunity is often found by seeking employment in Russia or the European Union.

Moldova is rated as a Tier 2 Watch List by the US State Department. It is a primary source of men, women, and children trafficked for sex and forced labor. Victims are sent to Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Russia, and the European Union. Nearly 80% of those trafficked work in the sex industry.

The problem is most egregious in Moldova’s rural communities, where educational and economic opportunities are lacking. Individuals in the countryside are desperate for opportunities. And desperate people without the proper means to acquire work visas, are prime targets for human traffickers. In Moldova, there are plenty of potential victims.


We met up with our Moldovan colleagues, Livia and Adrian, early on in our trip and they stayed with us for a few days, driving us around Moldova, where we visited villages and farm communities. But instead of listening to stories of capture, abuse, escape, and healing from individual survivors, we instead visited the damp, musty homes of elderly women suffering from diabetes and hypertension. We came upon the cottage of a 75-year-old man uncontrollably shaking from a neurological disease that rendered him unable to speak or feed himself. The nurse from CASMED that cared for him walked over 7 miles a day to wash his soiled bed linens and slice his bread.

We had lunch with a single mother and her son who was physically disabled and unable to leave the house. We listened intently as she pleaded with local government officials to assist her in rebuilding the foundation of her home. In the middle of the conversation, the mayor of the town leaned over to me and said in English, “Her house is going to be condemned next month. We don’t know what to do. We have no money to help.”

At some point I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like a voyeur. The overbearing sense of helplessness began to weigh on me, so I created an alternative reality. I convinced myself that the people we were visiting were acting—perhaps for the camera. I decided to look away, to ignore the problems that were presented before me—which is why, at our last stop, I refused to enter the house.

I stood by the car indignant and upset that Adrian and Livia had taken me to the home of an elderly women, caring for children, who was clearly uncomfortable and in need of some kind of material aid. Once again, I brought nothing. I had no food and no money. And this time, I had little empathy. I don’t know, maybe I was ashamed of my own privilege?

My colleagues from the Presbyterian Foundation, along with Adrian and Livia, returned to the car. None of them asked me about my decision to stay outside. Instead, they recounted another tragic story that had become all too familiar. Six years ago, the children’s mother was lured by work “recruiters” from Russia, promising a job in the hospitality industry in Moscow. Thinking that she would work in a hotel or cafĂ©, the mother gave money to the recruiters to purchase a work visa. She left. And has never been back. It is now known that she was trafficked into prostitution by an organized crime syndicate. Her children have spoken with her only twice since she’s been gone, and they do not know when or if she will return. The task of caring for her children has fallen to her impoverished and elderly mother—a situation that only continues the cycle of poverty and vulnerability that enables traffickers to take advantage of desperation.


After some reflection, I thought more critically about my own decision to not enter the house. Livia and Adrian, in the face of problems, never looked away. They listened to the stories of people and actively found ways to help. The work of CASMED and ProCoRe are testaments to the power of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming challenges. The nurses from CASMED provide not only medical assistance, but offer company and conversation, reminding those they care for that they are loved and remembered. Social workers from CASMED and ProCoRe assist elderly caretakers with their expenses, providing educational materials, a living stipend, and food throughout the year.  Youth counselors and workers provide job training, therapy sessions, and organize cultural outings to help young survivors of trafficking heal.  I began to feel ashamed that I, in my privilege, did not allow the children or the grandmother to tell me their story.

Livia, Adrian, and all the individuals we visited, forced me to realize an often forgotten fact: that a crime like human trafficking affects entire communities in addition to those trafficked. Men who have been sent away to Moscow to work on construction sites as bonded laborers are unable to remain home and attend to their ailing mothers. Women forced into prostitution in Turkey are unable to care for their aging fathers. Bright students desperate for work and educational opportunities drift away to cities and across borders, weakening their communities and impoverishing the life and future of their villages.  But the story doesn’t need to stop there.

No matter how insidious the crime trafficking can be, together, survivors and regular people like you and me can fight back. It is why Adrian and Livia continue to care and provide healing for all of those affected--the survivors and those who are left behind. It’s why survivors themselves are often their own best advocates. They are strong, resilient people who have a lot to teach us. It’s why we should never ignore their stories. It’s why we should actively search for those places in our communities where trafficking is happening and volunteer, donate to, or work alongside those organizations fighting this terrible crime.


We were about an hour and half north of the capital Chisinau when I saw my final glimpse of the Moldovan countryside. It was awash in an auburn, early-morning light that intensified the dour hues of plowed fields and barren hillsides. Thousands of dried sunflower stalks shuddered in the wind while elderly farmers dressed in loose-fitting cotton overalls lounged under spindly beech trees. Women’s Orthodox head scarves splashed radiant shades of red and blue across the landscape as they slowly herded untethered cows into the irrigation canals for water. It was a bucolic, peaceful scene. For while the land showed signs of serious erosion and the people working the fields conveyed a life bereft of material wealth, it was nevertheless enticing.  It was one of the few moments where I really paid attention, when I chose not to look away.

While Moldova might be far away, the trauma of trafficking hits close to home. As citizens of Milwaukee and the United States, we should work to fight injustice and human trafficking here and in places like Moldova. It might be uncomfortable and we might have to learn where we can be of help, but much more is lost when we avert our eyes and stand listlessly by on the roadside.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mama for comfort, dada for giggles.

Oh my goodness. It's been way, way, way too long since I last posted.

So much has changed. NOTHING is the same.

NO/NO took an early June East Coast/Midwest music tour. We went out for 14 days, played at least 10 shows, drove thousands of miles, wore out the timing belt on a 1998 Honda Odyssey mini-van, and played before packed and sparse crowds. My ears are shot, but my eyes are wide to the memories and sights seen.

Jamie and I moved into a second-story dutch oven with a skylight. The hellish window is angled at just the right degree that the glass bends the sun's rays so that they alight themselves across our carpets and our couch, turning both into smoldering cauldrons of simmering lava. We don't like the apartment.

I've started a new job. I'm now working as an analyst for a nonprofit "strategy" firm called S***** (secrets!). I spend a majority of my day learning how to navigate Excel and delving into the financial minutiae of social service organizations, looking to extract themes and trends that can help them answer big questions like: "Why do we exist as an organization?" "Have we lost our mission and vision?" "Why are we losing money on our grimy, in-ground swimming pool that is over-chlorinated?"  The job gives me a destination in the morning and some great co-workers, but I feel a bit disingenuous. Passionate, powerful, successful nonprofit leaders should not come running to me for financial advice. I'm still trying to figure out where I lost my last debit card. I honestly don't know, but I can assure you that it was at the '"classier" bar down the street with the brass bar foot rests that run under the counter.

We've had our Czech friend Bara Jakubcova come and go. She stayed with us for nearly two months, indulging in the best that America has to offer: big guns, big trucks, strong dudes, and red meat. While she was in the presence of me and Jamie, however, Bara had much "lighter" fare. We took her to museums, baked bread, drank wine (cheap), poured glasses of "imported" beer, all the while gliding our way through streets and alleys of Milwaukee on our steel-framed bicycles. Yes, we did that. Needless to say, she got to the see best and worst of our country (you be the judge).

Jamie taught, had summer break, vacationed in New York, got pregnant, and returned back to school.

Yes, that's right.

You thought I was just going to "sneak" it in there on that list and not draw any attention to the detail. But I'll draw attention here:

We're pregnant again!!

And, no, she didn't get pregnant in New York. She got pregnant in Milwaukee :).

Anyway, it was totally unexpected. Ada is going to be a big sister. We're both really excited and a bit nervous all at once. Jamie is going to try to have a VBAC (for those of you who don't know what a VBAC is, look it up). Her due date is late December. There will be updates.

On a serious and sad note, our beloved city of Milwaukee has had a tough few weeks. After the shooting death of a 23-year old, armed African-American man by police, the neighborhood in Sherman Park went up in flames and riots. The tumult became national news and before I could even comprehend what had happened, many friends and loved ones were calling and asking me about the situation. I penned an honest response to them through facebook. I leave it here:

To all of my friends from around the country and the globe who are following the news about Milwaukee and asking me about the situation in the city, I offer my thoughts: I simply do not understand what is happening. As a privileged white male, I am unable to comprehend what it is like to live in a community that suffers from an employment rate that is nearly 50%. I don't know what it's like to live in a community that has some of the highest incarceration rates in the country. I do not know what it is like to live in a community that has been marginalized through decades of economic indifference, cultural racism, and educational neglect. I do not know what it is like to have my history and my stories ignored or denied. I do not know what it is like to be judged by the color of my skin, by the sound of my name, by the look of my pants, by the style of my hair, by the pattern of my speech. I do not know what it is like to live in a community where merely surviving is a success. Until I know what it is like, I refuse to place my judgement upon those who are rioting, upon those who have committed acts of violence against buildings and a justice system that has failed them. At this time, I am trying to listen and search where I am needed, as a witness of solidarity, as a peace advocate, and as someone who wants to use my talents to unite the community. I ask that you join me in this journey of reflection. And please, please do not make this into a political story about police violence, for while it is a part, something much deeper is going on here in MKE and you all should respect that.

I remember that the last time I wrote on this blog (ahem...5 months ago....), I was enraptured with the observation that Ada was becoming more self-aware. What I meant by self-aware was that she was sprouting the seedling of personal ambition. As happens with people, this innocent “ambition” about which I began to wax poetic, has now morphed itself into nightmarish selfishness. When Ada doesn’t get to spend an extra ten minutes picking the petals off our neighbors purple cone flowers, she screams, goes limp, and lumps her head against the ground. If Ada isn’t allowed to throw her newly-purchased-plush-crab bath toy down the toilet, she screams, goes limp, and lumps her against the rug. If Ada isn’t allowed to get one last ride down the plastic slide at Gordon Park, she screams, goes limp, and lumps her head against the recycled rubber matting. You get the drift….

On June 15th, I relinquished my role as Ada’s primary care giver to Jamie. Since then, she has attached herself to Jamie. Ada threw me aside quicker than she shoves her half-eaten spoon of mashed potatoes onto the kitchen floor. In inverse relation to the ease with which Ada has dropped “dad,” I have struggled mightily to come to grips with the reality that I am no longer the “Apple (or bottle if you will) in Ada’s eye.”  When she wants comfort, food, held, read to, cuddled, she reaches for Jamie. When she wants to play or laugh, she comes for me, lying on her back waiting for me to blow bubbles on her belly. This is what it’s come to, Ada? I am now your clown? Your court jester to be cast aside when you are not amused!?

The closest Ada and I have been in the past two months was actually this week when I stayed home to care for her while she recovered from a “mysterious” illness. It was a great day. We read, walked, played with flowers, and took naps under trees. Then evening hit and I had a very visceral answer to the question that had vexed both Jamie and I: Gastroenteritis

After 36 hours, 20 pedialite popsicles, and 100 prayers to the Lord, I can confirm that Ada had stomach flu. She felled me with one kiss too many.

Monday, March 21, 2016

First Words

There is something incredibly narcissistic about having a child. Without stating the obvious (and by obvious I mean that half the child's DNA is literally your DNA), it is clear that we parents get a bit too enraptured in working to isolate and then exaggerate the positive physical, emotional, or intellectual traits that we believe have been bestowed upon the child through the righteous power and strength of our own genes.

Sorry Jamie, but those radiant blue eyes of Ada's that glint like the turquoise water of a coral-island lagoon were from me. Sorry Jamie, but Ada's appreciation for and love of Afro beat poly-rhythms and Turkish throat singing is from me. Sorry Jamie, but the way Ada approvingly squeals at the slightest sight of a humble wren or sparrow, belying a deep appreciation for the balance and harmony of nature guessed it...also from me. 

Negative characteristics are the result of DNA corruption which most likely came from your partner. 

Our babies, toddlers, and children are the lake; we parents are Narcissus. 

It's a sad, sad fact.

Yet our infatuation with our children--ahem, ourselves--isn't only relegated to obsessing over positive physical or personality traits. Nope. We do it with "first words" as well. And in a way it makes total sense: genes were given; we have no choice. But words, and the value systems and beliefs that they represent, are bestowed. In an odd way, a baby's vocabulary is both a reflection and insight into the culture of the household in which he/she lives. We parents have a serious responsibility in cultivating a loving and positive environment to encourage proper brain development and intellect. In reality, though, the major reason we do so is because we want to feel good about ourselves. And, of course, we don't want to be embarrassed in public. And we've all heard the stories:

*The young dad who is devastated to hear his child say "bullshit" in the navel of the church during a Sunday children's sermon--the child's word serving more as an indictment of the unrighteous and immoral father. 

*The boy who goes to school saying "piss" and "hell" while he terrorizes the girls. 

*The little girl that screams "F***" on the playground as her sweaty hands slip off the monkey bars and she lands on her knees in the mulch. 

It's why Jamie and I have a battle each night to see whether Ada will say "dada" or "mama" first. (For those of you wondering, "dada" won out. Another point for me!) I would much rather have Ada say "multiculturalism" before "racism." What a blessing it would be if Ada said "jazz" before she said "pizza" and "monograph" before "TV." It's kind of funny how we parents can use a child's first words to manipulate the image of ourselves that we want to broadcast to the community, because, let's face it, everyone else can see through our garbage. But with a child, "they just tell the truth." 

I see it in my own family when my mother in her failed attempt to make sense of how I drifted so far to the left from her own political spectrum frustratedly exclaims, "The first word out of your mouth was 'REAGAN!'" It wasn't my first word, but my mother's proudest word moment. 

I cringe every time she says it. 

Oh Lord how I've hoped Ada's first word will be "Bernie!"

In reality, Ada's first word was "yogurt." I'm still trying to decipher the meaning. It seems that my plan to make Ada my little ideological play-back function has failed. "Yogurt" is decidedly neutral. It means nothing. Jamie doesn't believe that yogurt was her first word; however, it was. I'm not backing down. I think Jamie is hoping that Ada's first word is going to be "art" or something. 

Ada's second word was "wow." This is better. Still a bit neutral, but at least Jamie and I can rest assured that "wow" signifies a growing curiosity of the wonderful world around her. 

And in that we can both rest assured that we're great parents. Everyone can now hear and know it.