Writing Tomorrow Into Existence

How does one write a song about the future when the past is still ringing in your ears? 

When I get stuck while trying to figure out my contribution to building a safer more just and inclusive community, it is this question that traps me. I get stuck here a lot, but fortunately I don’t stay here long. Some good music or Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks lifts me out pretty quick! 

On the subject of Indigenous histories, cultures and identities, one of my early introductions to that past ringing in my ears was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I still haven’t read the book (or seen the TV movie), but I remember spending far too much time reading some really interesting debates in university about it. I don’t know how or why this started, don’t judge me, I’m a geek trapped in the body of a jock! A common theme in many of those debates about this book was that it chronicled the death, erasure, elimination of an entire people. There seemed to be a finality to it. 

A couple of days ago, I listened to this discussion on CBC Radio’s Ideas between David Treuer and Taiaiake Alfred about Treuer’s book Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. 

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While listening to their conversation, I kept thinking, THIS is one good example of how to write that song about the future, and the present despite ringing in your ears. I like this path. It reminds me that making history is an interactive and continuous process. You can watch the entire conversation here.

I’ve decided to finally read Dee Brown’s book followed by Treuer’s, I’ll share what I think when I’m done. In the mean time, check out the following reads:

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Transformations : The stories of how we make the world we want.

Since 2015, Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC)’s Transformations photojournalism initiative has profiled remarkable stories of individuals and organizations working in Peru, Nepal, Tanzania, Eel Ground First Nation, Chippewas of Nawash First Nation (Neyaashiinigmiing), and Garden Hill First Nation, in partnership and solidarity with members of our Council in Ontario, Canada. Transformations is presented on a virtual platform and as exhibits in community spaces as opportunities to make visible and to learn from the hundreds of thousands of meaningful efforts underway for people and the planet, globally.

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OCIC’s Transformations 2019 exhibit comes closer to home, profiling over 60 individuals that work intentionally to build bridges between communities like Sarnia and Hawkesbury, Ontario, with those in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Dakar, Senegal. These everyday actors of social, economic and environmental change are connected to diverse civil society organizations and institutions across our province that are contributing to universal sustainable development. Their lived experiences and reflections on feminist and transformative change, community-led action, decolonization and the importance of localizing global issues are a part of collective efforts to “leave no one behind,” articulated since 2015 through the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030.

Visit the virtual exhibit [here](http://www.ocic.on.ca/what-we-do/influence-and-inspire/transformations2019/) and join the conversation by sharing a story of a person or group who is transforming your community and by extension, the world around us.

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and my own performance of Black Masculinity.

On a frigid Canadian winter night in Toronto, my partner and I snuck away from a seriously hectic time in our lives to watch the movie Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, it is based on the unproduced theatre play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It is a phenomenal film. I need to see it again. I want to watch it again. I will be watching it again.

Most people who know me, or have read more than one piece on this space will know that the theme of intersectionality is my lens, sword, security blanket, and shield. Moonlight was a visually beautiful and textured story telling experience steeped in the intersectional identities of some refreshing characters that were neither caricature nor stereotype.

Moonlight poster image

Moonlight

Like most art, what part of your soul Moonlight touches will differ from person to person. I walked into the theater knowing very little about this film, except that my social media bubble told me it was a phenomenal piece of black cinema. Also, Mahershala Ali is in it and I would happily watch that man do his taxes. I left the film feeling that someone had laid bare every one of my most intimate hopes, fears, insecurities and proudest parts of being a black man for the world to see. I believe in the premise that the world is a stage in which we are all performing in a one act play with a lot of improvisation. In my version of this play, the particular way in which I am performing my black masculinity costume was the part of my soul that Moonlight spoke to the most.

 

 

While reading about the film and its reviews, I was very happy to stumble upon a conversation about this film between and from the perspective of black people, some who identify as queer and some who don’t, but all based in Canada. Many thanks, fist bumps and hugs to Amanda Paris the host of Exhibitionists on CBC TV and the Playwright in Residence @CahootsTheatre for making this happen! The full dialogue is available on CBC Arts here Masculinity and ‘Moonlight’: Eight black men dissect Barry Jenkins’ momentous film

Participating in the original dialogue with Amanda Paris are Kimahli Powell (theatre director), Cameron Bailey (artistic director of TIFF), Matthew Progress (musician and multidisciplinary artist), LaLi Mohamed (writer, public speaker and self-described “non-profit geek”), RT (director and writer), Ty Harper (radio producer and co-founder of City on My Back), David Lewis Peart (writer, public speaker and placemaker) and Charles Officer (filmmaker).

After reading the dialogue, I thought I’d answer the same questions and invite you to do so as well. Below are the questions they responded to, with my own answers.

 

Every time I read a description of the film I feel dissatisfied. How would you describe Moonlight to someone who has not seen it?

Imagine that all of the most personal and hidden parts of your identity were placed in front of a camera and asked to pour out their innermost fears, joys, insecurities and questions. Moonlight is what happens when you weave that recording into a coherent story of one black boy’s journey through some of life’s major stages. The film is a rare glimpse at the tenderness and vulnerability that black men are typically taught and socialized to erase at all costs. Most importantly it tells this story without apologizing for, sanitizing or romanticizing the experience.  If this movie were a song, it would be Nina Simone’s classic song  Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. 

What do you find unique about the film?

It did not take any shortcuts in getting to the story. It would have been easy to tell the typical story of overcoming adversity and emerging victorious. Moonlight stayed with the story all the way to the end, even though at times I was rooting for some sort of fairy tale end to each part of the narrative. It was different to see a film stay disciplined to telling all these intersecting stories and hold them each accountable to being multidimensional, raw and believable.

The film explores the idea of masculinity as performance and how that performance is used as a form of survival. Did that make you think about the ways that you may or may not perform in the world?

Yes. I spent the next few weeks after watching the film teasing apart all the many instances in my life where my own performance of masculinity is part shield and part camouflage. My earliest recollection of this becoming a factor is when I arrived in North America as a teenager and trying to learn what it meant to be a black man and how that was different from being an African man. Looking back, I realize that a large part of my development as an adult has been learning which costume to wear depending on the audience and how to ensure that all of my performances are true slices of who I am. That last part has been the most difficult, and I have not always been good at it. In my case, it has not been a matter of survival. It has been about the need to create community and carve out a place of belonging in the midst of a very alienating environment. I guess one may say, that is survival. I have found that the less radical the difference between one version of my performance and the next, the more comfortable I have become in my own skin and the deeper my relationships have become.

Chiron looks out through the fence

Chiron (Source LA Times)

This movie features some of the most intimate moments I’ve ever seen between black men on the screen. How did these moments make you feel? Were there any scenes that tested your comfort levels and/or moments that hit you directly in the heart?

The most intimate moment in this film for me and the one that hit me the hardest was the scene in the Ocean when Juan is teaching Little to swim. I loved the powerful imagery of An older black man is standing with his feet planted in the vastness of the ocean teaching this black boy, a stranger, the life saving skill of swimming. This is the same ocean that was both a horrific voyage and grave for millions of their ancestors. In this same ocean Juan says some of the most powerful words in that film to Little.

“Ok.
Let your head rest in my hand.
Relax. I got you.
I promise. I won’t let you go.
Hey man, I got you.
There you go.
Ten Seconds.
Right there.
You in the middle of the world.”

The weight of this imagery hit me like a bag of bricks. It was incredible to see this on the screen. I know that there are many places in my life where relationships like this are the norm, but I am also painfully aware that my experience is not universal. I am here for you. I will protect you. I will be your support. I have been here before and you can learn from my experience. These are commitments that we all look for in one another and it is powerful when we find it. There is a moment in the scene when you see Little fully relax and let himself sink into the safety that Juan has created. That moment got to me. Right in the feels!

Juan teaches Little to swim in the ocean.

Swimming in the ocean. (Source New York Times Anatomy of a Scene)

However, I completely agree with David Lewis-Peart, who spoke about his apprehension in the Amanda Parris piece. I held my breath throughout this, and most scenes between these two characters. I kept expecting and fearing the moment something terribly inappropriate would happen between these two. I felt ashamed to recognize that I was distrustfully waiting for Juan to violate the beauty of this relationship. It took me so long to trust Juan, I know why it took so long and that knowledge hurts.

Several critics have mentioned the way Moonlight made them forget the absence of white people and consider blackness as the default, as the ordinary. What significance did the centering of blackness and the absence of whiteness have on you?

 Growing up in southeastern Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, the absence of whiteness was so normal that I didn’t just forget it, I never really contemplated it in the first place. I occasionally considered the presence of whiteness with a shrug of the shoulders when I was around the handful of European expatriate or interracial families in my hometown. I had the privilege of forming the earliest parts of my identities in a context where my blackness was of little positive or negative significance in my day to day life.

Moonlight made me feel like I was back in that space watching people who look like and sound like me live life out loud. Films like this are significant because they remind us of the value of creating and protecting the spaces where marginalized people can tell their own stories, centering themselves as the entire subject and primary audience. This fosters the knowledge and confidence of self and community that makes it easier to build truly integrated community and national identities.

The experience(s) of being black in Canada are not the same as being black in the United States. Do you think this movie is an important one for black people to see in Canada? Why or why not?

 Yes, this is an important movie for black people to see in Canada. This was not a revolutionary heroine narrative or a classic “us versus all of them” story where we could all leave the theatre reassured by a common sense of righteousness or indignation. This film compels us to have the conversations that we shy away from having as friends, brothers, partners, families, and a community. The most difficult thing I have done, and continue to do, in my life is to learn who I am and how to be that person. That has meant questioning and shaping my own views on my version of masculinity, sexuality, love, hope, fear, and the burning need to not be misunderstood. Doing this very personal work in a society that doesn’t always feel safe brings a lot of confusion and emotional scars. It also leads to some genuinely awesome moments of pure joy and accomplishment. The best way to heal the scars and share the joy is in the kinds of conversations that a film like Moonlight gives us permission to have with one another.

Do you have anything else you want to add?

First of all, Moonlight is a cinematic beauty. It is an absolutely beautiful film to watch and the use of shadow and color in very powerful ways frames this story very well. So on the surface, you will be happy to watch this good looking film. Secondly, this is precisely the type of story that very seldom gets told through Hollywood and audiences like myself have been looking for them for a while. On the surface, it is a simple story of black boy rites of passage journey and the experiences that shape the man that he becomes. Woven through this narrative are all the intersecting experiences, identities and expectations that make this the kind of multi-dimensional story that is typically, and painfully absent in narratives of black experiences in North America.

Go and see this film. Take someone with you, take many people with you and let’s talk about it.

 Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. (14A). 111 minutes. Now playing at a theater near you. moonlight-movie.com

 

6 Degrees – Truly a Citizen Space.

Is there an issue more globally urgent than creating truly inclusive societies?

This question was dropped like a pebble into the lake of our collective consciousness at the tail end of the summer of 2016 as the 6 Degrees Citizen Space was revving up.  The ensuing ripples came together in a “three day exploration of inclusion and citizenship in a world that demands answers now”.  The list of people involved in the many discussions over these three days is the kind of embarrassment of riches and diversity of perspectives that I imagine event organizers think of when they daydream.

Naomi Klein, the 14th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecturer started things off with an excellent lecture and conversation, with none other than John Ralston Saul. His Highness the Aga Khan was part of the closing act as the 2016 recipient of the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. The people sharing and learning over the rest of the three days was a stellar collection of just about everyone you would want to discuss inclusion and citizenship with. If you need to, start googling these names and indulge me while I name drop…

Madeline Redfern, Pico Iyer, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, A Tribe Called Red, Ratna Omidvar, Jennifer M. Welsh, Sol Guy, Renu Mandhane, Abdul-Rehman Malik, Kweku Mandela, Zabeen Hirji, Doug Saunders, Catherine Hoppers, Rabin Baldewsingh, Shamina Singh, Adrienne Clarkson, Naheed Nenshi and many more. There was even a virtual reality experience of The Sidra Project! The full list and bios are available here: Who’s Who at 6 Degrees TO

It is easy to be seduced by the names on the marquee and the slick production values of the design materials, but at the end of the day, we were there because of this central tangled question. Is there an issue more globally urgent than creating truly inclusive societies? The uncontested answer is no.

Given the social, environment and economic precipices that all of humanity is currently perched upon, truly inclusive societies are no longer the optional part of the meal. They are the entirety of the meal. How incredibly appropriate it was then that 6 Degrees created the opportunity for us to publicly have honest dinner time style conversations about something so personal as the need for inclusion. With little real distinction between speaker/presenter and listener/participant, we spend three days telling our stories, and sharing our aspirations and actions for societies where a sense of belonging is expected, designed for, and valued.

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6 Degrees Toronto 2016: Credit Ikem Opara
We are all  imperfect carbon based bundles of emotions, ideas and aspirations seeking a safe place to belong. This safety and belonging does not happen by accident, but must be relentlessly cultivated and encouraged such that all of us feel at home.

Rabin Baldewsingh, the deputy mayor of the City of The Hague, described his own challenges reconciling his Dutch identity, or lack thereof, and it makes me pause and wonder. These challenges are linked to the fact that he is an immigrant, born in Suriname and of Indian descent. Despite being deputy mayor of one of the most recognizable Dutch cities, his sense of belonging does not come easily.

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Rabin Baldewsing, Deputy Mayor of The Hague. Photo by Roos Trommelen
At a global scale, human beings are essentially nomadic. Moving from one community, settlement, or town to another, continues to be part of the way we live our lives. According to United Nations data, as at 2015 there were 244 million people living in a country other than where they were born, 20 million of whom are refugees. The reasons we leave home obviously vary greatly, but for most people it is a giant leap with little certainty of what is on the other side. The same UN data above showed that the number of international migrants has grown faster than the world’s population.

This brings us back to the fact that there is no more globally urgent issue than creating truly inclusive societies. These are societies that create and nurture their social, physical, economic and civic infrastructures with belonging as a key measure of success. The centripetal force of this kind of society has a twofold impact on our global family. It leads us to make decisions and take actions that reduce the reasons people are forced to migrate in the first place. Secondly, it creates the conditions for people who migrate, to more readily, and successfully, connect to their new community, and build a sense of belonging.

Creating these societies will not be done by ‘the system’ or any other faceless institution or policy. What I took away from 6 Degrees was a reminder of the power of individual action, and our responsibility to use it for good, not evil. Our institutions, policies, laws and structures ought to be an extension of our shared image of the kind of community we want to create. The key is that the image must be a true composite of the spectrum of the best of our desires and noblest of intentions. All puns intended! We need not see empathy as a nice thing among friends, but rather as an actionable, tangible, community and nation building tool.

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2016

Food Deserts are not sweet.

Do you know what a food desert is? Do you know if you live in one? This is a phenomenon that impacts a large and growing segment of our communities. The impact of food deserts are amplified when we layer on income level, identity, age, mobility, dominant language ability and many other factors.

There are also many impacts of living in a food desert that go beyond just access to healthy food options. Improved health outcomes, increased physical activity, more time spent with family, greater sense of belonging, etc.

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Louis Morris – Source Nextcity.org

This work in the Philadelphia area talks about some interesting learning and outcomes that may readily transplant to our communities. Check out this great piece from NextCity.org

Watching Philly Grocery Shoppers Is Changing How Cities Build Supermarkets

Where are the possibilities for this kind of work in your communities? Who do you know that is engaged in this space?

 

We Gon’ Be Alright.

I am fortunate to have chosen and worked hard to be in a career where my success is measured by how well I contribute to bringing people together to make society better for everyone. So even though I don’t live or work in the United States, this is a hard morning to push the rock up the hill. It is hard because I am reminded of how deep and powerful the dark side of our humanity can be.

We just witnessed a political candidate identify the fault lines of our society, cultivate them, light a match to the kindling and rise to power in the smoke of our misdirected rage and anger. We just witnessed how poverty, lack of civic education and class divides can be used to manipulate a population. We just witnessed the destructive power of religious fundamentalism in a nation that claims both freedom of, and, freedom from religion. We just witnessed the affirmation of whiteness and xenophobia in a country of settlers that indentures people of colour to grow their food on indigenous land. A man was elected to high office yesterday who told and showed you that he believes he can sexually assault you and your daughter because he is a star. It may feel differently if this was a candidate with an impressive history of political successes, contributions to society, religious conviction, upstanding moral values, military strategy, diplomacy, scientific acumen, relationship building, people management, hypnosis, sorcery, or anything at all to suggest that he might be good for the job. Unfortunately that is not the case.

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Credit: Associated Press

A 70 year old, white able bodied, cis gender, heterosexual, male, Christian, Anglophone, billionaire, who has filed for bankruptcy multiple times, who has been married three times, who is the grand children of immigrants, just won on a campaign premise that the system is rigged to keep him out of power. He just won with a campaign based on ‘traditional values’, anti-immigrant sentiment and the desperate need for someone to keep the wealth and powerful accountable to ‘we the people’. Repeat that to yourself out loud and see if you can make sense of it yourself.

In a sense it is a good thing that he has a republican house and congress. Let there be no excuses that the left wing media, left wing politicians and the bleeding heart liberals prevented him and his supporters for delivering his economic, social, and political nirvana that he promised. I expect that wall to be built and Mexico to pay for it. I expect Hillary Clinton to be investigated, tried and imprisoned. I expect ISIS to be over. I expect terrorism to be extinct. I expect no more crime in American inner cities. I expect no more innocent children afraid to venture out in public for fear of Trans people and their irrational need to use washrooms like the rest of us. I expect a resurgence of American manufacturing, domestic industry and exports. I expect the best trade deals the world has ever seen. I expect All Lives to truly Matter. I expect a boost in the respect other countries have the United States on the world stage. I expect “Obamacare”to be repealed and replaced with something better, more affordable and accessible for all Americans. I expect taxes to decrease significantly across the board.

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Trump supporter at rally in Denver, Colorado, in late July. Credit RJ Sangosti/ The Denver Post / Getty

 

I do not however expect, or want your collective conscience to be at peace for the price we have paid for all these. Remember your vote and choice every time you are booking that vacation to Mexico, hugging your sister or buying a Mothers’ day card. Check in with your conscience every time you hear of a kid being bullied at school for their faith, funny smelling lunch or weird accent. Repeat the words “Make America Great Again” anytime you hear of a Trans person murdered for daring to exist.

Looking ahead, I have long been against destroying your ballot or voting for candidates with no change at power as protest. I cherish it as a right that we all have, but I disagree with it as an effective way to make change weeks before the election. Principled statements without early sustained work at all levels do not lead to revolutions. Clearly many people were disillusioned with the forced choice of either Trump or Clinton. For those millions of people, today is the time to begin to organize, fund raise, identify a candidate, support them, and get them ready to receive your vote in 4 years. We are fortunate to live in a society where the outcome of elections are not a matter of life and death for most of us. There is a great privilege in being able to reject both candidates, knowing fully well that one of them will win.  We need to name that privilege, check it and get past it really quickly.

I am not advocating a complete rejection of hope and idealism for pragmatism alone. I just think that there is a middle ground that we need to find, if we are to present a viable, electable alternative to the dark side of the force. In the meantime, for the next four years, find what gives you the strength to be better to your neighbours, friends, family and yourself than you think you can. The rock is heavier today, and pushing it up the hill seems harder, but letting it roll back down the hill is not an option and so I have to believe that we gon’ be alright!

La lucha continua no terminará fácilmente. 

“Collective impact: Voltron Vs. The Borg”

Yes, you read that right.

Collective impact: Voltron Vs. The Borg.

I take no credit at all for this title or the truly stellar piece of writing and metaphor that it introduces.

These words and opinions from Vu Le @nonprofitwballs is probably the best explanation of the key concepts of collective impact I have come across. I may be biased given the significant role Voltron: Defender of the universe played in my early childhood development. Voltron was one of the major places I learned about team work, collaboration, individual responsibility and what five robot lions can achieve when they come together and form a giant butt kicking robot with a giagantic sword.

However, this is not about my childhood.

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The GoLion Team (Source IGN.com)

I like to think about our human existence on this planet as a really big collective impact initiative where the goal is to come together to make this world a better place for us all. Vu’s recent piece [ Collective impact: Voltron Vs. The Borg ] is required reading since you are part of the human collective. Also, if you happen to be reading this from Romulus or anywhere in the Delta Quadrant, heed Vu’s words below and don’t be like the Borg.

Collective impact: Voltron Vs. The Borg