I received a lot of feedback in response to "I Fit the Description..." Some of the emails and comments were down right hateful, so much so that I shut down comments on my blog and I stopped reading the emails. When I finally went back to them, I found a couple from a Girl Scout Troop leader in Minnesota. She wrote to me about what she was doing with her girls in response to the blog post. I want to share part of our conversation.
Dear Mr. Locke,
My name is Shelly Kang, and I'm a stay at home mom to two girls, and a troop leader for fourth grade Girl Scouts in St. Louis Park, MN (an inner-ring suburb to Minneapolis).
I know you're busy. I know that you probably don't want your life defined by the moment you described in your "I Fit The Description..." blog post. I'm sorry to pester you. I e-mailed you a couple weeks ago about my plans to share your story with my Girl Scout troop, and I wanted to follow up with you to ask once again if we could chat with you briefly - or if maybe you'd be willing to talk to me briefly about what we're doing.
My girls were very moved by your story - it would have been hard not to be moved. We are going ahead with our project to make pin-on buttons to share our feelings in the anti-racism/hating/discrimination movement. Your story resonated so deeply with us - and the part of your story about your friend in the red coat - it connected in my brain with the Fred Rogers quote about looking for the helpers during a crisis. In case you're not familiar with what I'm talking about - here's a link to the video of it - yes, I'm talking about Mr. Rogers from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
I think we're going to use a phrase something like "I'll be your Neighbor" on the buttons, but I think it would also be really cool to put the image of a red coat in the background to symbolize the power of a witness who cares. I had the girls brainstorm ideas of what to put on the buttons, and they came up with lots of enthusiastic ideas, but their innocent brains settled on the unfortunate phrase "Everyone Matters" which is such a simple, loving thought when taken literally, but in the context of the backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, it is the opposite of what we intend to convey - and we really are hoping to simply share our love and acceptance for everyone rather than to focus on the hateful reasons for the need for our support.
I'm really hoping that we can make a small-to-medium to even semi-large or really big movement out of this, at least in our region. I want to help my girls get enough people wearing our buttons that we can get some press coverage and spread it even farther. If that happens, I would want to feel free to talk about how your story inspired us, and how we came to the meaning of the red coat as a symbol...but I would want to make sure you're ok with that first before we start printing up a bunch of pins and potentially holding you up as an icon. I'm visualizing how cool it would be to live in a community where you can't walk down the street or go to the grocery store without seeing our pins on strangers and knowing that we are all working together to share light and love. Our cookie-selling season is coming up in February, and it will be a great opportunity for us to hand out the pins and explain our project while we are selling cookies too.
If you're not comfortable with it, we can just leave off the red coat and use some other symbol or no symbol at all. But it would be really cool if you'd be willing to connect with us briefly and give us a thumbs-up, thumbs down on our idea. We're going to work on some version of this for the next few months at least no matter what, but your participation would add fuel to our spark.
Whether I hear back from you or not, I want you to know that you have made a huge difference, that your words were incredibly powerful, that I am grateful to you for inspiring me to take a step beyond just feeling awful about the situation and trying to actually do something.
Thank you.Shelly Kang
P.S. Oh! and yes, you have my permission to post about our exchange on your blog. You can use my name too - just if you notice any bad grammar or misspellings please feel free to correct them for me! And if I said anything that you found offensive, please let me know personally rather than share it with the world. Anything I said wrong would have been through ignorance and I'm always willing to learn!
Dear Ms. Kang,
Thank you very much for writing to me. I have to apologize for not responding sooner. I was very focused on getting my students through the end of the semester. In addition, I started to receive a lot of email and not all of it was as supportive and positive as your message from you on behalf of your charges. The hostility in some of those messages made me decide to take a break from email. While that was the right choice for me emotionally, I regret that it caused a delay in my responding to you and your Girl Scout Troop.
As I am writing this, a grand jury in Ohio has refused to indict anyone in the murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old African-American boy. Officer Timothy Loehmann shot him within 2 seconds of rolling up on him in a park where he was playing with a toy gun. Some of your girls may be close to his age.
On 23 December, a grand jury in Texas refused to indict anyone in the death of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was forcibly dragged from her car and arrested by Officer Brian Encinia for refusing to put out her cigarette during a traffic stop. She was found dead in her cell days later. Officials in Texas say she committed suicide.
I bring these current developments up because I want your girls to know something that is very hard to hear. What happened to me happens to black people every day in this country. Every. Single. Day. I think it is vitally important to talk with your girls about why this is the case and how did it get this way. When and how did it become acceptable to treat people like criminals based on the color of their skin?
In Akron, Ohio, not far from where Tamir Rice was killed, a white man named Daniel Kovacevic walks around the neighborhood with an assault weapon on his back in full view of everyone. Ohio, like Minnesota, is an “open carry” state. When a local barber shop owner called the police to tell them that a man was walking through the neighborhood with a loaded rifle, he was told by the police that Mr. Kovacevic had the right to carry his weapon. Deone Slater, the man who called the police, is African-American. He said, “They (the police) were more concerned about me than him, as if I were the threat," he added. "It it were me with a gun, they would have shut the whole block down.” http://www.theroot.com/articles/news/2015/12/ohio_barber_confronts_white_man_walking_around_black_neighborhoods_carrying.html
With the demonstrations happening as we speak at Mall of America, there are people in your area who are thinking deeply about the way policing happens in this country. I am certain that there are people in Minneapolis who could have written “I Fit the Description….”
I think the girls need to ask themselves and others why white people are not treated the same way by the police.
Ask the girls if they think the police are there to help them. Ask if they feel like they could go to the police if there was a problem, or if they were frightened.
Ask them if they are afraid of the police. Ask them if they think they, like Tamir Rice, could be killed by the police.
This is the crux of the difference.
I understand the girls’ wish to put positive and inclusive messages in the world. They are mature enough to know that public messages are received in a larger context. If I yell, “Who wants ice cream!” it could be a great invitation to enjoy something great. But if I do that in a context where everyone is allergic to milk. it can come across as self-serving and insensitive. As an artist, I think about audiences a lot. I think not just about what I want to say, but I also have to think about what other people might hear. That’s what makes a public message harder to manage that a message among a group of friends who all share the same ideas. Of course, “everyone matters,” but to say that in this moment, in this larger context when black people are being targeted and sometimes killed, it will be seen as insensitive and careless at best; the exact opposite of how you and your girls feel about the situation at hand.
It is very uncomfortable and scary to talk about race. That is just fine. Nothing worth doing is ever easy and nothing important can be solved in a day. It can make people feel guilty and scared of saying the wrong thing and can sometimes feel terribly personal and shameful. But this is the work we have to do together if we are going to change anything at all in this nation. But please know that you are part of a great legacy. Women have long been on the front lines of the fight for racial justice in America. Some of them you all may know like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. I would encourage your girls to learn about one of my heroines when I was growing up. Her name is Viola Liuzzo. She was part of the march in Selma and she gave her life in the fight for racial justice. There are many people like her, white and black, who did the right thing against incredible odds and at great personal risk.
I do not know much about Girl Scouts, but I do know that Citizenship is an core value. I think your girls have a tremendous opportunity to talk and demonstrate what real citizenship is in this crucial time in our country. Issues of racial justice are at the core of what it means to be a good citizen. Badges like Public Policy, Truth Seeking, Behind the Ballot, Inside Government, Independence, Celebrating Community, My Best Self, Making Friends, and Giving Back sound to me like they are deeply linked to the work of justice that has long been the purview of women from the Progressive Era (when the Girl Scouts were born) until now.
I am deeply touched by the girls’ desire to do something public about the issue of racial profiling I wrote about in “I Fit the Description..” I think their heartfelt and beautiful gesture must be honored and supported. I love this idea of them watching out for each other and watching out for the people in the community who may be marginalized or under threat, like the lady in the red coat did for me. I remain deeply grateful that she stood by me. Standing by each other is something that we can all do.
If you are not familiar with it, I would like to recommend the work of Jane Elliott (http://www.janeelliott.com). Her very simple “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” exercise is enlightening and powerful.
I will reach out to Trina Jackson, the “woman in the red coat.” Also, thanks for allowing me to put our exchange on my blog. You have said nothing at all to offend me and even if you had, I think we need to risk offending each other if we are going to get to any kind of deeper shared understanding.
Ms. Kang, you are very fortunate to be working with young people with such a deep sense of justice and empathy. I am humbled by their simple desire to do public good. They are amazing and I am so glad that the world will be in the hands of such capable citizens.
Thank you for standing by me,
My conversation with Ms. Kang continues. Recently, Trina talked to the troop via video conference. She's going to send me some buttons when they are finished. Also, I let her know that my blog was open to her and her girls if they wanted to talk about their experiences in working on this project.