So...What'd I Miss? (post)

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We exit the Hall of Presidents and head down the stairs to the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Along the way we notice the lengthening line in front of us. The museum is buzzing with excitement over the Obama portraits, and we are a part of that hum. People still waiting in line smile at us in anticipation; we assure them the line moves quickly enough and is worth the wait.

Arranged chronologically, visitors pass through several rooms of presidential portraits – from Washington to Lincoln, Kennedy to Reagan – to form another line to see the latest installation, artist Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama. He is seated in a chair against a lush, green background that seems to glow. It is the first portrait to hang in this hall created by a black artist; its subject is the first black man to hold this office. There is no need for additional narrative in this space. We feel it, I feel it, our girls feel it. We have walked past dozens of white men, dressed in the robes of their time, framed in the gilding of the moment - we’ve passed history to see history, to stand with history, to listen to the thrum of history in the murmurs around us.

Downstairs we enter another wing of the museum and enter the current exhibit, Unseen: Our Past in a New Light. The first portrait we see directly across the room is an oil painting of Thomas Jefferson. It is similar in style and technique to the portraits we’ve just studied upstairs. But this painting has been unfastened in the upper lefthand corner. Without the staples holding stretched canvas to frame, it drapes like a heavy curtain pulled aside at the entrance to an old, dusty parlor. The portrait of a young slave girl representing Sally Hemming is revealed on a second canvas beneath the first. Artist Titus Kaphar has titled this work Behind the Myth of Benevolence, and we move from piece to deconstructed piece in this exhibit – reexamining the visual history we are all taught first through portraiture, challenging the collection in the very institution we are exploring. It is the first full day of a weeklong exploration of our nation’s capitol – the first visit for both of our daughters – and we leave this gallery with the energy and desire to dig deeper into the story of the founding of our nation.

We will encounter Mr. Jefferson many more times along our journey. We will climb the steps of the temple erected in his honor, and read his words that feel both powerful and hollow in the context of history. We will meet him again in the underground galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture where he stands regally carved in bronze in front of a wall of Monticello-like bricks, inscribed with the names of the six hundred slaves that he owned, several of them his very own children. We will walk through his reassembled library on display in the Library of Congress while recalling the exhibits we saw the day before that detail the lengths that slaveholders would go to maintain the illiteracy of those enslaved. We pass the ceremonial office of the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, the first female African-American appointed to this position, and then stumble upon her working office. We seek out hidden and surprise moments of history-changing among the foundations of buildings erected by slave labor. The week is rich in opportunity; it is steeped in moments of contradiction and retelling. It feels like a gift.

…..

When I first learned of We Stories I was intrigued. I have always had a deep love for children’s literature, and I find the genre compelling and powerful and essential. I turn to our own book collection on a daily basis for guidance and nurture and joy. I grew up in a family surrounded by literature, and with the example that there is almost always a deeper, untold story to every history. The mission of We Stories so closely aligns with our own family’s mission, that I had to know more.

I am grateful for the opportunity to now sit on the board of this organization and to watch this community grow in number and power. I still believe in its mission, and am energized by its reach. Its community helps to strengthen my own voice; its presence spills over into other moments and movements that I support; its commitment bolsters my own, and is a living, breathing example to my children of the values that I hope to pass along to them.

…..

Throughout our week in D.C., my husband and I kept pointing out to the girls how much had changed since our own childhood visits to the capitol. The story is changing, the narrative is deepening, the opportunity for reflection is more abundant and more challenging. This shift must be fueled by something, by a deeper calling for realization and reckoning. It can start with a simple shift in the way we confront our past in our own families. It will gain momentum when we ask, and then demand, a more complete story. It is possible because we can see it. I returned home to St. Louis renewed in my faith that this change can happen here as well.

It must become a priority for the St. Louis region moving forward. We must challenge the narrative that seeks to divide us. We must tell a deeper, truer story that resets our region’s trajectory, centering growth and progress on the foundation of equity and inclusion and the owning of our shared narrative. We must seed this work in a generation of storytellers that we are nurturing and raising within our own homes, and in our neighborhoods and our classrooms and on our playgrounds.

- Mother of two, ages 8 and 14, Benton Park resident

*Information about the image: Behind The Myth of Benevolence, Titus Kaphar, 2014
UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, The National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. 5/18-1/19
Kaphar's work examines traditional portraiture and reveals the unseen stories in a sculptural way. Artists have traditionally taken liberties with history in their artwork in order to present a certain narrative; Kaphar plays with that idea of manipulation to challenge that narrative and re-frame the way we look at historical figures and events.

Relearning Rosa (post)

Relearning Rosa (post)

“For me, learning she was a community activist and a change-maker made me view her story differently. It made me think about her choice as deliberate rather than spontaneous. Her decision on that bus wasn’t about bunions or backache. It was a strong and energetic desire to see a different Montgomery. And she was able to make that decision because she had become part of a community of activists who shared and supported her vision for a better future.”

Along the Way I Accidentally Became an Activist (post)

Along the Way I Accidentally Became an Activist (post)

“The most surprising aspect for me has been how far this experience has extended beyond the books for my family. I’m acutely aware of the lack of diversity we could experience in our daily lives where we live, and so we started taking small, but intentional actions by choosing toys, story times, and extracurriculars with racial diversity so that our children would have a different sense of “normal” than if we only stuck to our neighborhood.

And then somewhere along the way, while I was reading books and attending just about every single We Stories opportunity offered, I accidentally became an activist.”

History, Hidden in Plain Sight (post)

History, Hidden in Plain Sight (post)

“Knowing this piece of Black history … or American history writ large … flipped the script for me as to how segregation impacted my life in Creve Coeur and how I inadvertently benefited from our region’s investment in racial inequity.  I always feel like once I know I am part of the problem I have a greater sense of responsibility to be part of the solution. I’m reflecting on how many times I needed to be exposed to this information, and how the journey of other We Stories families pushed me along the way,”

We Weren't Yet Comfortable Talking With Our Kids...Until (post)

“Something we really value and want to focus on as parents is helping our kids understand other people and walk a mile in their shoes.

In our first few weeks as a We Stories family, we realized that we were becoming more and more comfortable talking about differences, describing and noticing them, but when it came to talking about how people are treated differently because of race, we were way less comfortable in finding the words for a really young child. That changed as we built a practice of using our We Stories children’s books as a jumping off point for age-appropriate conversations.

We Stories has given us just a different lens on how we approach what we are putting in front of our kids and that's guided us in other areas. We now feel more comfortable acknowledging our privilege and can use it to be part of the solution.”

...if we looked for a school district now... (post)

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I grew up in a predominately white suburb of St. Louis where I attended a public school district that participated in the Voluntary Student Transfer program. While my school had some amount of racial diversity, deep and meaningful relationships were difficult to form across racial lines. Most of the white students lived near the school and most of the black students traveled on long bus rides to the county. So at the end of the school day, we returned to our separate communities.  There was a lot of, "I'm not racist, but..." statements. Neither the students nor the parents had the tools to understand, unpack, and analyze privilege or to bridge the divides. It was not until I lived out-of-state as a teacher that I experienced what it was like to live in a place where not everyone looked like me. For the first time, I was living and working in a place with a vast amount of diversity and was able to reflect upon all that I had been missing.

When I moved back to St. Louis in my mid-twenties,  I did NOT want to live in the suburb where I had grown up. Although I had a wonderful and nurturing childhood, I knew that I wanted to live in a more diverse community and to have  the conveniences of walkable city life. However, a few years later, my partner and I began to look at purchasing home. Our top priorities were finding a good value for our money and living in a good public school district. At the time that meant things like good test scores and good ratings. We eventually found a beautiful home with the large yard and closets and the “good” schools that we wanted, even if we were a little disappointed that it was further out from the city than we initially desired. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I truly reflected on how heavily messaging and conditioning had affected our decision – “We don’t want to send our (hypothetical) children to that district.” “That area is not safe.” “That school district will affect our resale value.”

In 2014 I became a parent. It was then that I began to become more deeply aware of my own racial identity and the implications of my privilege. It has been an awakening experience. I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. After having my first child, I was horrified to learn from research how early biases form in children. But I was fortunate enough to find two fellow moms of young children with a glimmer in their eyes soon to be known as We Stories.  From the second I attended the first focus group, I was hooked. I knew that I needed tools and support to not only help me on my journey, but to support me as a parent in counteracting the overwhelmingly biased messages I knew my child would receive, especially living in an area as segregated as ours. Becoming involved in We Stories has completely transformed me and my family. Not only by providing us with the tools and support to have conversations about race at home, but also with the support to take meaningful actions within our community. My experience has truly shifted my parenting priorities.

While there is much I love about our current home and community, I am now acutely aware of the lack of diversity we experience in our daily lives - unless I work to intentionally seek it out. In addition to purposefully choosing books and toys with diverse racial representation, we visit story times and extracurriculars in other neighborhoods.  We travel to a different YMCA that is further away so that we encounter more people of other races – me in my classes and my children through the caregivers and fellow playmates. And if we were to look for a school district now, we would be more concerned about diverse racial representation and socially just and equitable curriculum. These are all small, but intentional, actions that I feel I must take in order for my children to have a different sense of “normal” than if we only stuck to our neighborhood. We Stories has helped me understand how important these small but intentional actions are for me and my family. The community has also helped me understand how our region has become so divided, the cost of those divides for us all, and also the roles I can play in helping to bring about change - big and small.