MWD16: On Looking Long at Power

Welcome to Midweek Dinner, the mental equivalent of scrounging in the fridge to pull together a meal. Except this is a meal of ideas, thoughts, unexpected joys, and yes, sometimes there's food. Subscribe to receive this assortment of goodness in your inbox every Wednesday.

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Each week, as soon as I finish this newsletter, I open a document for the next week’s edition. As the days accumulate, and my thinking and reading with it, that document gets populated with links and fragments of ideas, the ingredients from which I will pull together a meal.

This week, I have a full docket, plenty of things I could share and discuss, but my mind and heart are just as full, of pain and worry, heartbreak and struggle. I’m still living my minutes hoping forward, seeking those unexpected moments of joy. And they are there. But they come side by side with unexpected loss. So this week, I am grieving and angry, and most of those ingredients are going to remain untouched. Maybe they’ll still be fresh next week. Maybe they’ll find their way to the compost. Either way, let’s take a look at what’s edible.

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In college, I somehow got the extraordinary honor of working with photographer Earl Dotter to hang his show at a local gallery. Dotter has spent his career capturing the images and experiences of human labor, especially those who work in dangerous or hazardous fields. Beginning with his work with miners in the coalfields of Appalachia, Dotter has maintained a commitment to using his art to bring attention to the heart and hardship of marginalized workers in an otherwise indifferent world. In the process of working with that man, I’m sure we talked some, but I have no memory of our conversation. I just remember the quiet steadiness of the work and the searing beauty of each portrait, each image of people and places I had never had to go.

Thinking through the work of Dorothea Lange last week reminded me of this experience. Photography is a form of a long look, a way to look and look again at your subject, learning anew with every frame. Lange and Dotter both serve as excellent reminders that art can also be a form of activism.

In compiling this newsletter, I learned something unsettling about one of Dotter’s most famous images. His website explains the whole situation here, but the short of it is that the image was used by Russian influences on posters to advertise political rallies in support of then-candidate Trump. The rallies never took place, but it is startling to realize the implications of such misuse. How do we continue to see art as activism if it can be manipulated by those with aims antithetical to our own? How can we use our art and our privilege to help those on the margins be seen and heard without risking their story? How can I help amplify voices without forcing them through my lens?

I’ve previously shared my admiration for this Megan Stielstra essay. It does powerful work on anger and the suppression and release of that anger.  Last week, I read this interview on Electric Lit, and even though I stopped teaching some years ago, I want to keep thinking about this idea. In the interview, Stielstra says,

“Those of us who work in education need to look long at power, how our words can crush or lift. People are putting their hearts on paper and handing those papers to us. It’s a profound act of trust and I will work like hell to be worthy of it.”

That sense of trust and being worthy of it was the guiding arc of my teaching philosophy, the reason I fought (and still fight) against auto-graders and plagiarism detection software. The most important “lesson” I could ever teach a young writer is that she has a voice, and it is important. The only way I can do that is by listening to that voice. That means I have to be committed to being their first reader, their most attentive reader, their encourager, and yes, sometimes, their corrector. If I tell them to run it through a few software systems before giving it to me, I’m telling them that I don’t trust them and that they shouldn’t trust themselves. I’m telling them that a computer should hear their voice before I ever do. I’m telling them that their grade is more important than their voice. And nothing is more important than their voice.

But that first assignment for educators is harder: look long at power. Those of us attached to educational systems right now have a responsibility to look long at the ways our schools, our programs, our language, and our expectations are party to or even leaders in the systemic racism that has gripped our nation for as long as we have been a nation. We have been called out, and we must be willing to look long at the power we wield over students and their families. And if the power in question is in our institutional leadership, then we are called to speak truth to that power. Protests are powerful, they elevate voices. But there are things we can all do and must do to see real change enacted in our classrooms and churches, in our book clubs and neighborhoods.

So, I ask, what will you look long at this week?

For me, I’m going to keep thinking about this line from Stacey Abrams recently:

“They fear our participation, spending millions to silence and suppress us. They won’t see us coming, but they will hear us when we arrive”

And then I’m going to get to work.

Here are a few more things I found interesting:

—Elizabeth Catte on Mutual Aid as a way forward post-COVID

—J. Drew Lanham on Birding While Black

—Christoph Niemann on Playing the piano during a pandemic

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And Now for Some Truly Shameless Self-Promotion

(or what I’ve posted lately)

Our time in War and Peace and #TolstoyTogether is almost over. We start the Epilogue tomorrow morning, and it has been a surprisingly good way to read and share ideas around this extraordinarily relevant text. My thoughts on how we tackled this long text and why it works so well are here:

https://www.sarabethwest.com/post/on-limits-and-reading-tolstoytogether

This Sunday, I chose to reread a knife-slice of a collection from Clint Smith called Counting Descent. Click through to read one of the poems and then please, get your hands on the collection. It is required reading.

https://www.sarabethwest.com/post/on-sundays-we-read-poetry-1

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Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.