Still and always, grateful

Still and always, grateful

Some years, gratitude is closer to the surface. Some years, it takes a little more digging.

Four years ago, as Thanksgiving came, we were recovering from a natural disaster.

Hurricane Sandy had taken the lives of loved ones, and battered our city. There were 500 nursing home evacuees living on the drill floor of the Park Slope Armory. But we found – no, together, we made – a “paradise built in hell” (the title of a brilliant book by Rebecca Solnit, about the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster). With food, music, art, volunteers, bathroom-cleaning, doctors, donations, smart organizing, love, and a deep sense of purpose, we turned that Armory into a place (as described by evacuee Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler) of “courtesy, gentleness, and goodness beyond description.” Even if it could not hold back the hurricane, she said, “it makes one feel more secure and very, very grateful.”

Today, as Thanksgiving comes, we are trying to recover from a political disaster. While the lives lost and damage done by Hurricane Sandy cannot be directly compared, the experience of loss for many of us is still real. Not just that we lost an election, though that will have profound consequences. What feels especially painful to me today is the risk that we’ll lose a vision that we’ve been so proud to hold up for our kids – of a country called to its best self, rooted in compassion, embracing difference, with a real belief (even when we don’t make it real) that everyone deserves a more equal chance across all our lines.

That very dream, and the effort to make it real, provoked a sharp back-lash (a “white-lash”, as Van Jones rightly called it). At this moment, it seems easier to mobilize the darker, more closed, more resentful, sides of humanity – rather than the hopeful, open, embracing ones. I’m afraid, honestly, about what that means for being human.  

Still and always, gratitude is a critical part of the way forward. Not as a way of “feeling better” (although gratitude turns out to be good for your health). And not only because bitterness can consume us (although John Lewis reminds us that hearts full of love will do a lot better to sustain us for a long-term struggle). But also because gratitude for what we do together, for what we can’t do alone, for the ways we need each other, is at the heart of creating an inclusive community. “Organized compassion” is not only how we fight but what we are fighting for.

So, in that spirit, here’s some of what I am so deeply grateful for, still and always:

The organized compassion of our community

What our community did together at the Armory during Hurricane Sandy was inspired – but it was not unique. For all the mockery of Park Slope (and, ok, sometimes it’s justified and often pretty funny), there is an extraordinary quality of compassion in our neighborhoods, a willingness to roll up our sleeves and work for it, and the value of teaching that compassion to our kids.

The best things we do here – without any doubt – are the ones we do together. I never cease to be grateful for what we make happen together in our public schools.  I was reminded of this recently in a session with the 3rd graders at the Maurice Sendak School, in this song from the Brooklyn Children’s Theatre (who have programs at P.S. 230 and P.S. 179, where the PTAs can’t pay for cultural enrichment), and the definition a P.S. 130 student gave for democracy: “we look out for each other.”

For the Kensington Plaza Stewards, who (with a little help from DOT) have turned a concrete triangle into an inspiring community gathering place, that recently brought us together for a Bangladeshi peace rally and the Mexican day-of-the-dead celebration. For the volunteers who keep Prospect Park clean and thriving. For the friends groups of our neighborhoods’ public library branches, who energize our spaces of reading and culture.

Even in our food. From the Park Slope Food Co-op, to the greenmarkets, to the organizing we did together (across lines of race and class) to save a supermarket at the Fifth Avenue Key Food site. To the CHIPS and Masbia soup kitchens, where volunteers offer the same dignity every day that we did in the Armory.  

For the extraordinary way that the people of Kensington showed up to welcome homeless families, pushing back with love and basic acts of kindness against efforts to demonize them, and continuing to organize effort to support the families there a year later.

For Families for Safe Streets, who have found the courage, together, through their own devastating tragedies, to push for changes that have made NYC safer for every one of us.   

For the thousands of you who came out last Sunday to Adam Yauch Park, a playground marred with swastikas, to insist that love trumps hate, and that our playgrounds will remain places where our children learn to run, climb, play, live, and dream together.

We have plenty of blind-spots and prejudices of our own, and (many of us) benefit enormously from privilege we did not earn.

But even so: it is, truly, an incredible gift to live in this community, full of people with so much love for each other across differences, so much commitment to working together. I don’t take it for granted for even one day. But it’s good to have Thanksgiving to account for our gratitude (and to start getting ready for year-end contributions, including to some of these incredible organizations).

The bright, fierce leadership of our young people

In recent days, I’ve been especially grateful for the courage, optimism, and smarts of our young people.

Have you listened to this speech by Hasiba Haq (at about 21:00), a young leader in Kensington? If a young Muslim woman can find optimism in these times, and if she can be embraced by a crowd of 150+ men coming from Friday prayers at the local mosques, as she talks about being a feminist and embracing Planned Parenthood … something pretty special is happening. And she’s walking-the-walk too, organizing young people in her community through culture, politics, and story-telling (including an election-night party where a third-grader taught us that democracy is “where we look out for each other”).

Did you see Kate Griem’s words at our #GetOrganizedBK meeting? At 13 years old, Kate and her friends have a vision for our city and our planet. She and her friends published these essays in New York Magazine. And she’s one of the young women – along with my daughter Rosa – who organized the “Girls Read for Girls” read-a-thon, that raised over $20,000 for the Malala Fund and girls education around the world (and they demonstrate something pretty powerful about what’s right with girls education right here in NYC).

Last Tuesday, Hebh Jamal led a student walkout from Beacon High School. Just a day later, she and a few dozen classmates were organizing an equally powerful meeting, as part of the IntegrateNYC4Me Citywide Youth Council on School Integration. They presented plans to senior staff of the NYC Department of Education for how our schools can be more integrated, more equal, and even have better school food.

Listening to these young people – so smart, diverse, insistent – it’s impossible not to feel gratitude, and hopeful about the (long-term) future of American leadership.

The lessons of my family, and my people

Closer to home, I’m beyond lucky and grateful for the blessings of my family. For my mom, who is still a public elementary school guidance counselor in her 70s, and the best there is at it. For my dad, who in his retirement is back at the Legal Services office he directed long ago, helping build partnership and advocacy campaigns. (We are looking so forward to spending Thanksgiving in St. Louis with them). For my sister, helping the Milwaukee public schools get better at teaching literacy. For our tremendous kids, growing up to be remarkable young people, so deeply steeped in the values of this place, from whom I learn so much every day. (Most days, I’m just grateful that they tolerate me.) And for Meg, somehow always the most thoughtful and organized person I know, who balances being the chief-of-staff at Planned Parenthood NYC (and a board member at Women for Afghan Women, and the lead parent organizer in Girls Read for Girls) with a still-badly-unequal share of our domestic labor, and yet is the first one to show up for people with what they need.

I also can’t remember a Thanksgiving when I felt more conscious of myself as a Jew. My Judaism is always a deep and vital presence in my life. But there’s something about having neo-Nazis celebrating the victory of their candidate for President that primes me. I’ve joked (but in a way that doesn’t get a laugh) that I feel like a partisan in the Warsaw Ghetto.

But what I’m really thankful for in my Jewish heritage is this: an abiding commitment to balancing our tribal and universal selves. Our history teaches us the importance of fierce Jewish pride, or learning our tradition and passing it on, of watching out for those who would harm us, of fighting back when we need to. But it also teaches the necessity -- moral, spiritual, and practical -- of insisting on a world that does not set some people up over others, but instead insists on universal values of equality of tolerance. (For more on these ideas, I encourage reading pieces by Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Daniel SokatchJonathan Greenblatt, and Peter Beinart).  

During the campaign for the “Community Safety Act” – to confront the injustices of discriminatory stop-and-frisk – young people from the Morris Justice Project in the Bronx carried a simple but powerful sign: “it’s not a crime to be who you are.” Together, I hope we’ll fight to make sure that stays true in the days ahead.

But more than that: it is the opposite of a crime – it is a blessing – to try build a world for both our tribal and universal selves, where we can all become who we are (as hard as that always is to figure out), and be deeply committed that others should have no less opportunity to do the same.

As Rebecca Solnit put it for natural disasters, so too, I hope for this political one: that in our response, we find solidarity and creativity and power that we did not know we had. That our response to this disaster gives us nothing less than “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become. The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human.”

This Thanksgiving, still and always, and together with you, I’m grateful to be charged with that task.


P.S. While I’m focused on NYC, it’s impossible – especially on Thanksgiving, when we are called to reflect on our country’s long and shameful history of oppression of Native Americans – not to be horrified by what’s taking place at Standing Rock. A few weeks ago at the City Council, we had the honor to meet Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault, and to reflect on the courage of the water protectors. So even as we celebrate all of our reasons for gratitude, and seek restoration for the work we have in the days ahead, I hope you’ll join me in supporting them today as well.

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