Surprisingly amicable self-interview Part 2: Barnett Newman, a blue chicken, the future of resettlement, and #Teamgranola.
So what’s with these black and white graphics.
They’re paintings from the Barnett Newman Stations of the Cross exhibit in DC. I was admiring the giant indigo chicken on the roof and then went in there looking for Rothko. They blew me away. I never realized what emotional power could be captured in two colors like that. It felt like peeking into an experience of dying with all the layers and responses and stages of fear and resistance and acquiescence and hope and confusion and surprise and wonder that must be part of it. Really it took my breath away. It made me think that dying might turn out to be like so much of the rest of life—and experiencing it fully will be the hard part. It’s easy enough to seize up with fear or numb out in daily life. As much as I liked the blue chicken, I wish I’d spent more time in that exhibit.
you do like chickens.
I do. My kids talk about "spirit animals.” (Vegetables, too, for that matter; one claims to be a sweet potato.) For better or worse, I wonder if the chicken must be my animal. I realized at the end of graduate school that I had never written a story that didn’t mention a chicken. If I were a wizard, my Patronus would probably turn out to be a chicken.
And you took the pictures?
I asked. The security guard just said, “You pay taxes don’t you?” which I realized later made me feel great about paying taxes. So I’ve got the pictures on my phone. I loved the white ones too but they didn't photograph well. I’d like to go back to that exhibit
Speaking of taxes and a slow death, let’s start with the future of refugee resettlement.
Honestly, as you know, and as I’ve been saying here for a while, I’m concerned that the whole resettlement system is getting sabotaged from the inside out. It’s not hard to imagine how this might work: jobs left vacant, systems neglected and going to seed, leadership that may not love its own mission. Anyone who leads an organization or department knows how easily you can damage a system just by getting distracted or impatient. So what if you don’t love it? What if you’re threatened by it? A house divided against itself doesn’t flourish. A three month “pause” to the refugee system connected to the travel ban might sound innocent or even wise, but I think it was a good way to bludgeon the inner workings. There should be an outcry, but I don’t really know how to cry out myself, and I don’t hear much of one at all. I might add also, that this is at least as much the point of this blog as selling granola.
You sound dark.
I feel dark sometimes, but I don’t feel paranoid. Beautiful Day is a tiny outpost on the periphery of the refugee galaxy and the US resettlement system, so nobody is out to get us, but we’ll need to be vigilant. Our mission is going to be harder and harder to sustain if only because there will be fewer and fewer refugees arriving in the US, and thus in Providence. Meanwhile, the world population of refugees is growing rapidly. If it’s true that human displacement correlates with climate change and accelerates when we look away from it, then our country and the whole world will need a lot more organizations like ours. It makes me more determined than ever to stick it out and try to contribute to an alternative, practical, (dare I say) bi-partisan solution that looks beyond conventional social services and relies on the wisdom, raw potential, drive, and resilience of refugees.
I heard someone on NPR the other day talking about post-traumatic-growth.
Exactly. That’s what so many refugees have—strength that comes from having lost everything and then met with the willingness to start over. Our country needs that. For sure, more than a wall.
What about this latest article in the NYTimes saying the Trump administration intends to lower refugee admissions to 40 thousand.
You asked that question a week ago when I was first writing this. Now it looks like the presidential determination will be set at 45,000 but my answer is the same: Terrifying, although par for the course (pun intended). That would be the lowest quota set since the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980 was passed. Just within the last few weeks, Bangladesh, the most densely populated nation on earth, where the average annual income is only $1300, did its best to welcome close to a half million Rohingya fleeing for their lives. Powerful and rich as we supposedly are, I don’t think history is going to be very kind to the wisdom or reputation of our generation. If there is such a thing as a collective American conscience, I wonder if we can all feel our heart shrinking.
“We live in a political world."
"Where mercy walks the plank.” I think if Dylan put that album out now he might have called it No Mercy. Although I don’t feel like we’re intentionally being cruel. It’s seems like we’re just too distracted and numb. I sometimes feel like the Patronus of our whole country right now is a giant rooster: cocky and a bit clueless. Rather than getting filled up with light and racing to the rescue in our hour of need, this rooster will get preoccupied with how wonderfully imposing it must look. Maybe on a rooftop somewhere. But maybe it's a bad analogy. I did love that rooster.
If there’s one thing that could make a difference what would it be?
This has become my little soapbox, I’m afraid, but I think it comes down to the integrity of Evangelical Christians. Evangelicals supposedly make up a quarter of our population. Supposedly 80-plus% voted for Trump and 90% would do so again. So to put it another way, without the support of Evangelicals these policies would not stand.
Although, do you personally know many Evangelicals who are against refugees?
Almost none. Although, let’s face it, I'm in Rhode Island, a tiny state where even Evangelicals lean blue. But when I hear the deafening silence of leaders like Franklin Graham, who has been a prime mobilizer of disaster relief across the world and now clearly has the president's ear...
I can’t believe he doesn’t speak up! And there are plenty of other Evangelical voices openly championing the travel ban and anti-refugee rhetoric. Evangelicals have both a clear command from their scriptures to care for refugees, and a long history of doing so. How did that change overnight? It seems like they’ve now allowed a growing fear of Islam (without ever being friends with or even meeting a Muslim) and a commitment to being pro-life take them to a place where they're essentially pro-suffering and pro-death (if we shrink our commitment to refugees from 80K to 45K this will profoundly impact real human beings) for those in the world who are suffering the most—including those suffering for religious persecution. It’s long past time for Evangelicals to speak up. If they did things could change; if they don’t then they are a house divided against their own convictions and they’ll eventually need to take some responsibility for being pro-suffering and pro-death.
Okay: How about Patriotism
You’re determined to get me in trouble. I define patriotism in a similar way that I define honoring my parents. I don’t think anyone other than young children can genuinely honor their parents by blindly obeying them or parroting their views or doing what they are forced to do. Honor is something deep in the heart, grounded in honesty and truth. (And by young I mean pretty young. I remember so vividly the moment when I realized that I cared more about having an honest rather than compliant daughter. She wasn't even 5 years old. I'd been trying to force her to apologize for some silly thing I thought she'd done to her sister that she believed she hadn't done. Losing that battle was when parenting started to become pretty fun.) So I suspect that true patriotism, like parenting, is always going to be a bit messy. Jesus had a great way to describe religious leaders who cared only about demanding that others admire them for being so moral: he called them “white-washed tombs.”
Okay—let’s end on a lighter note. The granola subscription club thing:
You mean #TeamGranola. We’re hoping for more than just a thing. Maybe a THING. This is a big deal for our organization.
Why the hashtag.
That’s marketing—we hope it will help spread the word. But the team is a big deal to us. For years we’ve been trying to build a system in which every aspect of a small business—from the product to the production to the customers—are all absolutely essential to accomplishing a mission. So a subscription service seems really strategic at least at this stage of development.
Meaning we really want our customers to get some idea of how integral they are to our training program and the refugees we are working with. In the American marketplace, there are so many layers of abstraction between a consumer product and the people who make it. For us, in actuality there is almost no abstraction. Every month we have someone who has never worked in the US before entering our program. He or she might help measure ingredients on Monday or help bake a batch of granola on Tuesday or Wednesday and get it ready to ship on Friday. While #Teamgranola members may not have the chance to visit our kitchen and see first-hand the joy and hope and pride of the people training with us, they are very very close. That distance is an illusion created by labels and packaging and geography. As the program grows we can put more effort into shrinking the illusion of distance.
Through Social Media, I assume.
Exactly. As ambivalent as I am about Facebook personally, we now have some incredible platforms to show what’s happening in the lives of our trainees both at the kitchen and in the extended refugee community. (Please, dear blog readers, do follow us on Facebook and Instragram!) The more we’re able to grow #Teamgranola the more we can put effort and resources into bridging that illusion of distance. I don’t get into the kitchen as often as I’d like these days—but when I do it jolts me out of the demands and burdens of my to-do list and reminds me that I’m lucky to be a part of people’s lives changing. What a privilege. And our regular customers and supporters are lucky too. We’re going to do our best to find ways to share that experience with #Teamgranola. Our customers are the ones making this all possible month by month. We'd love to have more and more of you join the team.
So are you hopeful?
Intermittently. I stayed up to watch Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Late Show the other night. Colbert was practically begging him to provide some hope but Coates said hope wasn’t his job. He said, "You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.” I’m not sure hope is a granola makers job either, but some of our refugee trainees do provide us with a lot of hope. Just yesterday one of our former employees, Solange, came back to visit with hugs and kisses for everyone in the room, even those she’d never met before. It was totally infectious if not miraculous given some of what she and other refugees have been through. There’s an awful lot of hope there. I’d be a fool to resist it.