Stuck in trafficking… (originally titled: If you reach just one)

This past week during Open House at the Hawk, I helped to organize a community safety meeting that was to take place in our parent and family resource center. Like many initiatives and programs, this was an idea that was thought of and organized rather last minute, not fully leveraging our means to contact or parents and community members. This unfortunate reality of extreme multitasking that is not uncommon for many educators did not stop the event from being held. It did however drastically impact the number of parents that attended the evening’s presentation. As our community partners from Inner City Vision and I sat waiting to see what that number would be, a lone grandmother entered. She sat down and asked with nervous laughter if she could add someone to the list.

These words were written on March 26th of last year. I was going to continue to tell the amazing story of the one person who came to seek out information about child sexual exploitation and commercial trafficking, a very unfortunate reality that impacts the area along the Figueroa corridor that borders Hawkins High. I never got to complete this post before I left Hawkins.

The short of it was, on this night, that lone grandmother came to realize that her granddaughter, a former student of ours, had indeed exhibited every single tell sign of a victim of human sexual trafficking. She shared that her granddaughter had just been home after a year missing. She had come home weary, looking to rest. When grandmother noticed her tattoos, they were covered up and quickly concealed. When the questions of her “significant other” began, this young woman quickly put those lines of inquiry to an end. She was careful not to reveal what we would come to realize a week later in the Parent Center that night… a few days too late. The young woman disappeared again, leaving grandmother and family to wonder one more time.

Earlier this week I received a follow up email to an initial one I had never received. It was a request to assist in identifying and soliciting the participation of career and industry experts who may be available to see student presentations about human trafficking and homelessness, providing them feedback on a panel. This is an annual interdisciplinary project where 9th grade students in the Community Health Advocacy School choose a relevant and timely problem to explore and identify solutions to. This participatory action research project is aptly titled Rebuild Healthy LA. Pause and let that sink in for a minute. Today’s education, in order for it to be “relevant” and “hands on” (buzz terms often bandied about in the educational discourse) needs to ask youth to think through the most heinous of societal problems, how they came to be, and offer real viable solutions. It’s no small feat to dream of a world where a city’s residents can afford basic housing and shelter or where young girls and women can grow up and live safe, not having to fear that their bodies will become a mere object of a gratuitous and violent transactional underground economies.

This is both simultaneously hopeful and tragic, as often is much of the work of educators in inner cities across this country. Despite my not working in South Central Los Angeles any longer, I can never not invest in the hopeful side of the equation. So I reached out to my contacts I had cultivated around these tragic realities. Folks who had helped me think through appropriate interventions for young people caught up in gang life and consequential violence and trafficking. The same folks who helped organize my open house workshop a year ago. They responded immediately, more than willing to take another opportunity to engage young people in this most important work. It warmed my heart very much to see the unwavering commitment to the community these professionals have, and how they volunteered without hesitation to help cultivate the same in our young hawks.

A day later, yesterday I received a text from one of these professionals who had personally taken on the case of our young woman. The same woman who had helped me reach this grandmother that night at the school. We had kept in touch about the progress on her case. At one point she had been found and rescued. Awaiting programming for counseling and recovery, she had left again… reentering the trafficking world, were the cycle of violence is incredibly hard to escape. Yesterday’s text messages further helped me to know how this student’s story had developed. Below is an edited version of the text exchange with pertinent information redacted to ensure the safety and future recovery of said student.

This exchange continued and reminded me again that the world works in mysterious but often very encouraging ways. In meeting one person on one night, and connecting them with another, a path has opened up for one young girl to try and work towards hope. If there is such a thing as salvation, in my mind the closest thing we can do to achieve true understanding of it is to work together relentlessly in the name of hope.

In East Salinas, where I currently teach, human trafficking of young people and girls in particular, is indeed a problem. It is this reality that I am cautious about educating my young middle school students about, for fear of ending the last phase of childhood innocence. Yet it is the same reality that concerns me when students, like the one I wrote about in my last post, choose paths that increase the possibilities of tragedies like this. And yet we must remind ourselves at all costs that there is hope. Always.

Our damned children

I cannot describe how angry I am that our country, supposedly the “greatest on Earth” does not have the courage to stare into the depths of our individual and collective identities and sort out between the two where our obsession with gun culture will end and our real committment to nurturing our future generations will begin.  To come home yesterday, after teaching and learning with 140 plus young bright minds, and listen on the drive home yet another narrative of horror, tragedy and loss really just eats at one’s spirit.  Feeling simultaneously fearful and blessed that I had the opportunity to embrace my children upon arriving home from my place of work, a school… is something that I can never let myself take for granted.

After the last school shooting that was covered in the media, (at a school site where three of my friends and former colleagues worked) I had the opportunity to attend “live shooter” training.  This training was conducted by ALICE.  And although I can understand and even appreciate to a certain level the intent and ideas behind having such a training, a question still persists like a question in my mind. Why must there be professional training for educators on how to survive mass shootings at school sites?  Those who would answer with the response that these are just the times we live in, while correct in this assertion should know better.  This is not an adequate response.  Everyone should know better.  We are the nation that pats ourselves on the back for so many things, putting humankind into outer space, advancing democracy and freedom around the globe, and yet for all of our “achievements” however based in reality they may or may not be, we can’t figure out how to have a real conversation about how to protect the sanctity of real children in sacred spaces of learning? Or is there nowhere and nothing that is scared anymore?  We unfortunately know the answer to this.

Nevermind protecting the sanctity of unborn life… for God’s sake!  What are we doing to cherish and protect the lives of our children as we teach them how to build a better future?  We are normalizing trainings for the adults who care for them in these spaces that teach folks like me how to barricade doors with belts and desks, how to engage in potential counter measures to an active shooter, and how to evacuate without getting shot… if possible.

And while I appreciate a training in research based survival tactics… I am not at all ok with the notion that just because this is a reality, that this is in any way, shape, or form… right.  We can do better. We have to do better.  For our damned children.  My heart and thoughts go out to all those who have ever been affected by the violence of a mass shooting. I pray that we will have the common sense, courage, and strength to begin to envision a better world where this does not happen with the frequency that delegates tragedy to normalcy.

“Sell your cleverness…”

Yesterday morning’s #superbluebloodmoon was awe-inspiring for those of you up early enough on the west coast to witness this celestial event.  I felt blessed to have this otherworldly scene greet me first thing as I opened my front door at a quarter to six.  As I pulled up to the gym parking lot, a little later than I would’ve liked, I was compelled to suspend my routine (albeit it very new… as in 2 weeks new) start time.  I sat in the back of my car, just staring at the eclipsed moon, in all its darkened red glory.  I felt a little silly as people passed by me, some already having been productive in their personal fitness and some rushing towards whatever physical health goals they had previously established, while I sat dressed to work out and instead gazed at the sky.  The shyness quickly turned into shock and then sadness.  One person saw me gazing and stopped just long enough to ask me. “What is this all about?”  I responded as a matter of fact, but this seemingly innocent inquiry really got me thinking about the crisis of our modern relationship with our surroundings.

No doubt living back in the Monterey Bay region has reawakened a sort of environmentalism that has been lying semi-dormant for a long while.  This is after all the area where I put my finger on the brand of educational and spiritual training I felt most drawn to.  I have also been prompted reexamine what exactly I mean when I say “environmentalism” by some pretty profound writings of Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame.  His collection of essays entitled Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays has been helping me survive the massive onslaught of “bad” news in the past year.  But in reality its been several years if not decades since the roots of extreme global capitalism have taken shape, forming a type of global consciousness (or lack thereof) devoid of any true connection to land and environment.  This is what became clearer to me early Wednesday morning.  How could anyone witnessing this eerie celestial event not pause to question and reassess their position in the “grand scheme” of things?  Even if only for a moment, a break in one’s gait long enough to view the sky through eyes of wonder.  How would our ancient human ancestors have viewed this gigantic blood-red sphere, hovering above, so differently than every other day?  How would they have rearranged the sublunary events of their day to accept a larger, profound, and more universal one?

I wondered about this and other questions as I stared into the early morning sky.  I also took a few pictures, with the intent of sharing.  I soon laughed at the silliness of this, not the instinct to share this with others like friends and family whom I texted despite the hour to see if they were fortunate enough to be awake and experience this, but the absurdity of trying to ‘capture’ this amazing image with my phone camera.  I walked away in awe and also distress.

Admittedly I have not been the best optimist of late.  I have real concerns about the state of just about everything in the world.  From the state of our own nation, to geopolitical realities that are unfolding, humanitarian crises, and the ever-growing threat of nuclear war.  But at the center of my pessimism is the absolute realization that we are not, by and large, not making this world a better place.  And I don’t just mean for people.  There are many who would argue, even quite successfully that we have. I mean making the world better for all life.  And I think there are also just as many (hopefully more) that could counter the argument of unlimited growth and progress leading to better qualities of life by recognizing that those processes that we engage in the name of progress are actually the main drivers of death.

And it is not that death is necessarily supposed to lead to pessimism.  We all are supposed to die.  All life leads naturally to death.  It is the obsession with staving off the natural declines and deaths of everything in favor of a false philosophy of infinite growth and wealth that eats at my soul daily.  Knowing that this philosophy drives most everyone in the modern world, including myself to live in ways that are murderous to everything that is actually sustaining to our lives.  And the cognitive dissonance is so real, that it has taken those of us who feel a drive to “save” our planet from the unnatural destruction of our own making to a place where we are dependant on the human solutions of technology and innovation, the ironic drivers of this destruction.  Kingsnorth pulls at this idea throughout his entire book of essays but utilizes the soul-stirring words of mystic poet Rumi to really drive home a much-needed paradigm shift.

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion; bewilderment is intuition.” – Rumi

In my attempts to heed this advice and combat this pessimism before it devolves into permanent paralysis and inaction, I have recommitted to some key principles in my life.  The first is to get out in nature and be a part of it.  This has developed into a sacred and spiritual Sunday outing where our family explores the wonders of the wild and untamed world, recognizing our very small but important place in it. This may even turn into a more disciplined practice of something I used to enjoy many hours of in my youth, nature journaling. My wife recently stumbled upon this dandy of an idea, suggesting that we even consider taking his class as a family!

The second thing I have dedicated energy and time to is involving myself with a local organization working on a very important social and environmental issue, specifically in our local region. Salinas being the salad bowl of the world, industrial agriculture has bestowed both the blessings and the curses of mass food production. Pesticide use as a “reasonable” byproduct has long been questioned and challenged in the region, as far back as Cesar Chavez’s work with the UFW. It still is today. A local community organization called Safe Ag Safe Schools, a part of Californians for Pesticide Reform, is leading the charge to help change regulatory policy of pesticide use near and around schools. After attending one meeting, I was energized to continue to deepen my involvement with this dedicated group of people. From banning chlorpyrifos to eliminating the use of Round Up on school campuses, there is still so much work to be done with regards to challenging the ill and often catastrophic impact of our modern-day food systems.

These are the things that have helped me to begin reintegrating my spirit into this land again. That and being able to spend more time with family and friends. And even though there are many moments where things feel hopeless and strange, there are still many more moments to embrace the grandeur of where we are and what is actually possible… when one invests in bewilderment.

the Struggle is real…

and it begins early in life. even as early as your 4th birthday. Nilou received a very nice gift from her good friend at school. it was a book about the U.S. presidents. her friend was really into the presidents and geography after transitioning out of a well developed fascination with chemistry. so for her birthday he gifted her this book to share in his enthusiastic fascination with this topic.

one night last year we were sitting down and reading it before bedtime. Nilou was flipping through it rather quickly, despite her typical approach to examine every picture and word on the page in order to perfect her reading (which is also starting to boggle my mind.) i knew right away what she was looking for but that didn’t stop me from inquiring.

she said, “i’m looking for the girl presidents.”

being a history teacher with a certain conviction towards examining historical and present day truths i had to tell her.

“i don’t think you are going to find any women presidents in that book.”
“why not?” she innocently asked.
“because there hasn’t been any girl presidents yet.”

i held my breath. this is one of the many nightmare scenarios that befall a father who is ever so slightly aware of the entirely different world his little girls grow up in. the fear of cracking the globe of amaze and wonderment that i have seen her look at the world with, it paralyzed me.

that silly Izzy, giving me a book with no girl presidents!” –

she laughed. and i did too. it was all i could do at that moment of innocent and naive cuteness.

these past few months both of my daughters, Nilou and Melody have been into super heroes, having uncovered this book about some of my favorite Marvel comic book heroes. although i didn’t buy this book (i did buy some of the little figurings though) i was all about supporting it. as we were, both my wife and i, supportive Nilou’s choice to be a super hero family for Halloween, body imaging issues aside momentarily. i want them to know that women can be ANYTHING that men can be… presidents, super heroes, anything.

to further nurture this, i decided to allow them to watch me play Marvel Champions on my phone, not something i usually do but i wanted to show them (and maybe myself) that girls can be into this type of game. i purposefully played my strongest female character, Gamora. i am amused and happy to report that Gamora is now a household name here at the Gomez ranch. as they watched me play, they were able to identify with this strong fictional female character. this is not something we haven’t done before. rather just another medium to digest the ever increasing media bombardment, a medium that we as parents can still exercise some control over.

towards the end i randomly faced Ronan, the accuser (fans will recognize the fortuitous nature of this pick)… and immediately Nilou decided he was a little too scary for her to continue watching our wrestling battle. i respected her decision… and yet continued to play. he proved a tough opponent, though i (or Gmora rather) emerged victorious, Nilou did peek every once in awhile during the battle. she grew distraught, until the end she pouted angrily and said:

“i’m just so mad that the boys always win!”

terrified, i immediately stopped playing with my phone and had what i’m sure will be one of many talks. no matter how reflective and encouraging i can be as a father, a teacher… the fact is we still live in a world where girls are raped daily, women aren’t paid as equals, and where you have to be a super hero if you want to be a woman who continues to wake up every morning despite (or maybe in spite of) the oppressive realities, knowing that you will fight today… in order to change tomorrow.

to all the superhero women out there… happy International Women’s Day. I stand with you as a man, in the struggle.

International Women's Day

A letter to America

Dear America,

I’ve grown up in your midst the past 35 years. I grew up in a place named after a native tribe, long since gone from their lands, where kids teased each other openly about losing wrestling matches to the nigger. Placed where students named Janel White of all names made fun of other students’ lips and neck rolls, visible after a fresh hair cut, because they were too black.

I came of age in the care of babysitters who hailed from the Midwest. Who would openly use racial terms like nigger to communicate their disgust for a people they thought less of, people who looked like my grandfather, mi Abuelito.

The only time he came to this country, he never returned to his home. He died not too far away from the Hamilton sign, a billboard off interstate 5 where the Hamilton family exercised their 1st amendment rights to put political perspectives for commuter consumption next to a caricature of you, America… As if Uncle Sam himself had a parting thought for you as you passed through this typical small rural town.

Welcome to America. Now speak English

This message would later be one of the thoughts for the day, years after my grandfather died here. I still use the poster of this particular iteration of the sign my friends had made for me as a teaching tool in my Language Acquisition class at Antioch University.

My upbringing took me from the rural parts of Southwest Washington to the suburban Southern California. Los Angeles was in the midst of an uprising after the police officers whine were tried for beating Rodney King were also acquitted of the charges. Before I left for California, I caught a glimpse into the power of internalized racial oppression when one of the only other Latino kids in the school told me to call him if I needed help when I got to Los Angeles. He said, “I’ll come down with my shotgun and show them niggers.” And so I left.

It was there, in one of the most wealthy parts of Southern California that I learned about the frightening intersection of class and race. The only black students were teammates of mine on the football team, not acknowledged for much else. I became the dirty Puerto Rican, a token Latino minority. I must admit that I internalized a part of this racial stereotyping too, for I was not strong enough to speak out and rise above it, my voice had yet to be found.

It was here that I also learned about the complicity of our law enforcement with upholding the relations and subsequent treatment that highlight our ethnic differences rather than our common humanity. Scared to speak back at police officers who berated me in front of my friends for “talking shit while I was arrestable,” for being too scared to remember to give the officer my last name when asked, even though I could see my house and it was 5 minutes past curfew.

And one of the most powerful life lessons I carried from this place was from the classroom. One an honor roll and gifted student, I was confused at the time, not fully comprehending my lack of academic success, almost not graduating high school. I couldn’t understand why a student like me could not do well at a supposed nationally recognized blue ribbon school, just as much as I could not understand why my history teacher was adamant that the American Civil War was not fought to abolish slavery, but was fought over states versus federal rights… TO OWN AND EXPLOIT HUMAN SLAVES!!!

It is here still, to this day, where schools still struggle to educate minority students in a safe and dignified manner, free from any racial prejudice or oppression.

My journey has now brought me to this place. I have had the blessed fortune to start and raise s family in one of the most segregated urban centers in America: Los Angeles. I have the privilege of commuting only 10 miles into the inner parts of South Central to work with some of the most creative, intelligent, hard working, and inspiring communities. I have held this privilege for the last decade. Teaching and learning from black and brown youth. Mis estudiantes.

I have found my voice. And I want to use that voice today, on Thanksgiving, – often referred to Thankstaking by those unimpressed with the often unacknowledged and misrepresented history of this holiday – to truly give thanks for what I’ve been able to accomplish in this life, here in this land.

I am thankful that this land is full of people willing to lend a hand, work hard for themselves and others. I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect privately and publicly, exercising my first amendment right. I am thankful for the spirit of a people that truly believe by putting into daily action, the ideals that gave birth to you America;

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

I am thankful for those brave enough to resist the system that subjugates their very existence, knowing that to be American is to settle for nothing less than justice. America, on this day know that as much as we love you… The people demand that you change, that you continue to grow and mature, and that you evolve into a better iteration… One that truly lives out your founding ideals. Rest assured we will help you. Because we love you.

Sincerely,

Citizen number (whatever)

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Photo credit: Mear One