Shoshannah Stern is Raising a Baby Activist

Photo courtesy of Shoshannah Stern. Photographer Tate Photo (IG @tatephoto)

Shoshannah Stern is a ground-breaking Deaf actress for the many roles she has played on hit shows like Jericho, Weeds and Supernatural, among many others. Now, she’s taken her career to new heights as she and her friend/writing partner, Josh Feldman, have written, produced and star in the hit show This Close – the very first of its kind – on Sundance Now. In this fresh, smart, often hilarious dramedy series, Stern & Feldman play best friends, who are both Deaf and living out their adventures (and misadventures) in Los Angeles. In addition to these two amazing stars, Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, Cheryl Hines, Zach Gilford, Colt Prattes & Nile DiMarco help make up a mind-blowing cast.

img_0332
Photo courtesy of Shoshannah Stern

Shoshannah’s most important role, however, is being a mom to her 3-year-old daughter. Her family is the most important thing to her. When I met her for the first time, I was struck by Shoshannah’s intelligence, wit and contagious smile. As I’ve gotten to know her as a woman and a parent, I see a strong, wise woman with a beautiful daughter who emulates all of those characteristics.

On a personal note, her daughter is probably my second favorite child in the world. Ella & and Mayim love each other in a way that makes hearts shoot from our eyes when we are all together.  It was for all of these reasons that I wanted to share her perspectives on parenthood, what she hopes her work reflects and how she is raising a baby activist.

What were you like as a child?

I thought I was a handful until I became a mom myself and I started talking to my mom about stuff like that way more than I did. And she said no, I was a really good child, but I definitely had a mind of my own. I always asked why we had to do things a certain way. And if I felt like they should be done differently I’d say so! But one funny thing is that I never wanted to sleep away from home growing up for the longest time. My mom would drive me to my friend’s house and they’d be super excited to have me sleep over and she’d remind me of that. Then I’d play and play and have the time of my life… until it was time to go to sleep, and then the phone would ring and it’d be that friend’s mom saying, Shoshannah wants to come home. I always wanted to sleep in my own bed and wake up at home with my mom and dad. Which means that home was my happy, safe place. It still is.

How is your daughter like you?

She’s a lot like me I think! She always asks why, always! So I feel my mom’s pain a little bit now because I’m always having to explain everything we do. And she’s creative—she loves dressing up and creating imaginary scenarios and she loves to laugh. She is also messy, though I feel bad she inherited that one from me.

What was life like for you, growing up as a Deaf child in a multi-generational Deaf family?

It was great. I never felt like I was different from anyone. We all used the same language and so our being deaf was never an issue. Because of that, I don’t feel as if it’s all of me, it’s simply one part of who I am. I’m allowed that because I grew up having full access to any and all experiences that were happening around me, and I owe all that to my parents and the specific experience I had.

I didn’t really have any (struggles) because I was lucky enough to have my family. There was a time when I realized, at a very young age, that the way my family actually was, was not necessarily the way some people saw us. And that made me feel bad. Not for us, but for them. I was just like, wow, I wish they could open up their eyes more because there’s a lot they’re missing.

What do you most wish hearing people understood?

All hearing people are different. One size never fits all, whether you’re hearing or deaf. So it would be great if people learned, in general, that not all deaf people, or any people really, are the same. If you aren’t sure how to communicate with a deaf person, just ask. Some prefer reading lips, some prefer to write, some prefer to gesture. Just because I might have had one bad experience with a person who hears doesn’t mean they’re all like that, just like a person who hears shouldn’t force one experience they had with a deaf person on every deaf person they might meet.

I always lead with this—there’s a vast spectrum of the deaf experience. I represent only one small part of it. I don’t believe that any one person can represent an entire community. I hope the more people the world sees from that community, the clearer that will become.

What social issues are we going to see on This Close?

We think about the characters first and their stories. Then as we are telling the story we find ways to insert their specific experience into that—whether it’s with being deaf, being gay, or as a woman. But the story always comes first, because if it’s the other way around, it never seems natural and people feel like they’re being lectured to rather than being told a story. In interviews or dialogues we have about the show, that’s when the social issues come out, but it’s always best when it’s in the form of a conversation rather than a lecture.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? An activist? What does that mean to you?

I think feminism means you want equality and equal rights for everyone, so yes. Absolutely. I read something really cool from a profile on an activist I really like and she said, hashtags are not activism. And that’s how I was making myself feel better. I didn’t like what was happening in this climate? I’d tweet about it and feel better, feel like I’ve done something. But reading that made me feel like to be an activist, you need to do more, you need to actually get out of your comfort zone. And I don’t do enough of that. And I need to.

img_0329

Mayim’s school had an active shooter drill. What was that experience like for you? How has your conversation with your daughter shifted since the shootings and active shooter drill at her school?

She just turned three, so she’s very young still. I don’t think she really understood what was happening other than she knew it was to keep her body safe. Her teachers and her school are doing an amazing job of that. I don’t take issue with what they are doing, in fact, I’m very grateful to them for that.

It’s more that we live in a world where that’s become normalized. I see it not only in these drills, but in myself and my reaction to mass shootings when they happen. We cannot let that happen. We have to constantly make sure we don’t become numb.

How have the shooting at Parkland and subsequent civil war between the NRA and the rest of this country affected you as a parent?

It’s actually made me very proud.

Because I now know without a doubt that our children are our future. And they’re the superheroes we’ve been waiting for. They’re going to save us all. I’ve always told people that as a parent, you have no choice but to feel hope. I have so much more hope now than I ever did before becoming a parent. But now that hope has taken form. It’s not just an ideal now—it’s concrete and real. We are seeing a very big change happen in the world at this moment. And Mayim and all her peers are going to help keep turning that wheel forward.

As a parent, how do you raise your Citizen of the World? 

We travel as much as we can, and we always eat the way they do and do things the way they do, whether it’s with her cousins in Arizona or in another country. It’s a good way to her to see that people are different, yet the same. We keep a very flexible schedule when we travel for that reason.

What is you greatest joy?

I’m giving her a life that is more than what I had growing up.

Biggest fear?

That we are leaving her a mess that she’s going to have to clean up, and she might not be able to.

Before I became a mom I thought I would want to put her into all sorts of classes and sign her up for lots of different things—but I realized constantly rushing her into the next thing and being late wasn’t worth the joy we have just lingering over breakfast and talking about whatever she wants to talk about. The little things are more important to me now.

I want her to be whatever she wants to be, not who I think she should be. I hope she’s passionate about something and she finds ways to keep doing that—even if it’s not as a career.

I hope that she leaves the world better than it was when she entered it.

Do you want her to be an activist? 

I want her to always stand up for herself and for others, and lead with love and strength.

What would you say to young people who want to make change in their communities or people who are already activists, but who feel enraged/fatigued at the direction the world is going?

I try to engage with people on social media as much as I can and have real conversations with them, and some of them are young. I always tell them it’s okay to feel whatever it is they feel, because feeling is what inspires action. You don’t always know what that action is yet, and you won’t if you’re not sure what it is you feel. Feel it out first, and then act.

Take care of yourself. You can’t feel one thing constantly because then you go numb. If you have to take a break, take a break. If you have to watch Real Housewives for a couple of days, do it. Laugh at silly things, like grown ass women throwing a completely good glass of wine all over someone else. Get your emotional strength up again. Others will step up for you, and then you’ll step in for someone else when you’re strong enough again.

We have all got to try to bridge that divide. There is more than unites us than divides us.

What advice do you have for parents raising future baby activists?

One thing about being a parent is that you have to lead by example. Children see action much more than they understand abstract things that have to be explained. So take them out in the world. And don’t lead with fear.

If you haven’t seen This Close, don’t miss out! The entire first season is available now at SundaceNow.com, via the Sundance Now app or on the Sundance Now channel on Amazon Prime, Apple TV or Roni. There is a 7-day free trial available that gives you enough time to binge all 6 episodes. You can add to that by using code HEARTBEAT for another 30 days free! Seriously, do not miss this.

Featured post

Oh, You Haven’t Written a Blog Post About Mommy Shaming?

When my daughter was 18 months old & began to show interest in using the potty, I knew that she was ahead of the curve and I was thrilled at the idea of ditching diapers early! But potty training a child was one thing I’d never done before.  So, like any good first-time mom, I went online and researched until 2am.

I learned of The 3-Day method, I learned that I need to let her lead the process, I learned that I should be prepared for her to pee and poo all over the floors and carpets.  I learned that babies in Ukraine are potty trained at 12 months (no pressure, America, with our 3 and 4-year-olds still in training pants!).  I was in full-on panic mode about which “method” to go with, and how I could emotionally scar my daughter if I didn’t pick the “right” one.  The very next day, I texted my friend who had the highest ratio of potty-trained kids in my world.

As our text exchange began, I was filled with hope as she explained that she used an “all-or-nothing” approach, and how with one child, it happened quickly and the other took longer, etc.  Okay, cool! A new method ! Let’s start fresh — I’ll go with that.  (I was really wrapped up in the “methods”)

So I asked, “What did you do about car rides while you were potty training?”

She answered, “The 3-Day Method is all or nothing.  You leave the diaper off no matter what. Probably best to stay home.”

I replied, “You used that method. Ah, gotcha!”

She replied, “Judgmental much? LOL!”

But it hit me immediately that she wasn’t joking.  Though I only thing intended was clarification, when I said “gotcha”, she was triggered.  It was offensive because her experience as a mom, I later learned, is that perception of parenting styles is attached to a great deal of harsh judgement and criticism.  Through personal experience, along with articles and blogs about “right” “wrong”, parents are on edge when it comes to sharing the decisions that they make.  This conversation was just that trigger for my friend.

She likened my “ah gotcha” text to the judgmental tone used by parents perched on high, looking down on each other’s parenting decisions.  Which potty training methods we choose, whether or not we vaccinate, the way we discipline, how we feed our kids, which “method” of child-rearing, education, the quality of cotton, style of dress, whether or not to post photos of our kids online, preschool or no preschool, circumcise or not, work or stay at home —- you name it!  As this unfolded, and I realized the reality, I felt like my head was going to explode.

At first I felt really annoyed that my meaning got all twisted up and was misinterpreted. Expressing that didn’t work out for me.  My friend was very upset!  What followed was 24 hours of discomfort, uncertainty, anxiety, my being introduced to the terms “Mommy Shaming” and “mommy blogs“, a conversation with a member of the clergy, for God’s sake! (I was desperate, people) and a lesson in the difference between intent & impact.  I INTENDED to get advice about successfully potty training my baby.  The IMPACT was far different from my intention, and that absolutely Continue reading “Oh, You Haven’t Written a Blog Post About Mommy Shaming?”

Featured post

Soraya Miré, FMG Survivor, Author and Human Rights Activist: Raising A Baby Activist

Soraya Miré, age 2, with her siblings. Somalia, Africa

Meet Soraya Mire. Life has a beautiful way of bringing people together. Serendipity worked its beautiful magic one day last year, at a local coffee shop where I was writing. As I headed for the largest table in the place, I joined a beautiful woman who smiles with her whole face. Little did I know that asking to take a seat at that table would would lead to a wonderful friendship and a chance to hear, and read, her story. Little did I know that she’d been through the unimaginable, and that she had taken her pain and used it to heal, and to become a leading Human Rights activist, author, lecturer, filmmaker and champion for justice the world over.

Little did I know.. But I know now, and you should know, too. I am so honored that she agreed to be featured as this month’s Raising A Baby Activist post.

Though Soraya was born in Somalia, this story isn’t based in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. All countries, cultures & families have cycles of pain. It is how we choose to look at them, respond to them and act in contradiction to them that matters. This story is based in our own backyard, wherever you are in the world. It is the story of children, of refugees, of moving parts. It is people coming from other cultures that we aren’t aware of. It is in America.

When I started this journey, I was ambivalent about circumcision of little boys. I once interpreted for Deaf parents whose newborn son was being circumcised and I can tell you it was terrible to watch. It was clearly painful to the newborn, and it didn’t make sense. It was bloody and horrible and felt unnecessary, but society taught me the myth that it’s “cleaner”, so witnessing what price a baby has to pay, I made the mental note not to do that if I ever had a son, blocked it out and moved on. I am now keenly aware of my place against circumcising, no matter a person’s gender. With all due respect, cultural norms, be damned.

In her book, The Girl With Three Legs: A Memoir, Soraya writes about the extreme devastation and physical, mental and emotional trauma she faced and overcame as a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation at the tender age of 13. This book takes us on her journey of how she overcame this horrendous trauma, moving forward as a champion for women and girls all over the world. Her story blew the lid off of this largely ignored “rite of passage”. “The misconception,” she explains, “is that this somehow equates to a first drink or experimentation with a drug. Or perhaps even a girl’s first menstrual period. But this has a different meaning. This is something put upon my body before I was even aware of my body.”

How did you become an activist, and what activism have you been involved in?

Looking back, I was born to be an activist. My mom used to say, “You are a reign of terror!” I believe in fairness and justice. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but if I’m right, and something is unjust, I’ll tell you without a filter. I respect religion but we are talking about child abuse under the cloak of culture. Mutilation is the ultimate child abuse. The children subjected to it were born perfect. It’s my choice if I want to enhance my body in any way at the age where I can decide for myself correctly, not influenced by the idea of the perfect body.

When I was faced with the decision to choose my family or my activist path, I was considered to have discarded my family because they disagreed with my choices to speak up and reveal what has been happening young girls in our culture, and many others, for about 2000 years. I had no choice.

I have spoken before the United Nations, U.S. Senate Human Resources & Health Assembly and the World Health Organization. I have worked with medical professionals, government officials and with women and families affected by FGM. My goal is human rights for women & girls, and to end this violent global oppression while empowering women.

I was struck by the way you were able to express the emotions of yourself as a child in your book, going through all of that trauma, but speaking as your adult self. What was that like for you?

I want you to smell that burning rotten flesh. That’s the fire that keeps me going. My voice and experience matters. I know that speaking and making you feel how I felt, you will understand millions of innocent children who are forced into this before their bodies were developed. Women can’t have a normal delivery when they give birth. The fistula -the tissue between the anus and vagina falls off – and childbirth is excruciating.

Let me walk with 3 legs. I would rather my clitoris dangling between my legs. I’d rather be “different”.

People refer to Female Genital Mutiliation as body-enhancing surgery. How could this be viewed as that?? I can’t believe this is actually a real perspective! The belief is that this is the mistake God made; that we need to fix this body so that we can make a woman the wife a husband “should have”. It’s wrong.

These are the hidden secrets in our cultures. This is the shame they live with. I wanted you to know it so that change could happen.

What do you say to the people put off the topic of FGM?

This is a crime against humanity.

There is a difference between Empathy versus Sympathy. Any human being who doesn’t have empathy has no reason to block the feelings of the other human being – especially on the topic of FGM. Sympathy comes in the form of looking horrified, turning a blind eye and downplaying what is actually happening. People say things like “What do you think about yourself? If that happened to me, I would have killed myself. What kind of a woman would I be then?” One American woman told me that she considers any person who has experienced it less of a woman because they are mutilated.

When we think of it in the right context, the response is “You’re a survivor. Beautiful. You were abused; how can we make this right and stop this cycle?”

Somalians and other Africans say ‘you brought the most intimate secret out – we had this.’ The countries and cultures knew. Torturing our kids every hour and we kept silent but I refused. I remember my mother’s eyes looking at me allowing my mother provide the ultimate betrayal.

I love and respect, understand and forgive my mother, but it doesn’t give her the right to do that without fighting for me. I have the right to say ‘you are my mother but you were wrong to do this to me. You thought I was like an animal, to do with me whatever you want.’

This happened to my mother, and her mother, and on and on. My mother was abused and so she continued the cycle with me. I didn’t ask for this so now I ask myself how I can make it better for others.

What is your advice for people who feel exhausted by the current political climate, and who may want to take action but feel that they won’t have an impact on lasting change?

We all have a spark inside. Sometimes dimmed with worries, depression, fear – it takes a lot to get off the couch and make things better. Remember why you wanted to make a change a long time ago. Make the choice to live your truth. Television will numb your brain, and you will find yourself forgetting what your truth was. Beware of the hypocrisy of religion & power.

Stay in touch 100% what your mission and purpose in life is, and you will always have that torch to pass it to the next generation. We were too angry or radical, fighting too many fronts to have a torch. Focus on one issue. CHANGE IS HERE – always remember your mission to have that spark to have that torch.

What is your advice to the youth of today, who may not be able to vote yet?

Educate yourself on the topics at hand. Become an expert and learn the opposition’s facts. A good activist must know what their opponent is thinking before your raise your voice. Be an expert without arrogance. Be authentic. Not only when the cameras shine on you. Others may not see your truth because they see standing in their truth. You have to understand what the other is feeling to bring them over.

Angels make mistakes and become eagles. Too much power goes to our head awhen we allow ego and you really must know what you’re standing for.

  • Know who you are and where you stand.
  • Be humble.
  • The closest people you know will be scared of you standing in your truth
  • Have strong, open dialogue.
  • Never, ever, ever back down when improving someone else’s life and you have done your homework
  • Know your facts.

What about parents who are raising baby activists for the future?

It is the hardest job to raise a child. A parent’s first job is to really understand their own self; making peace with their past, how they felt in society, how they saw their bodies in the eyes of others, how they came to be a parent.

Lead with encouragement and listen with sympathetic ears. Allowing their voices to have a space where they are heard “you’re just a child” Once we have empathy. If I hurt you, I know how it feels because I’ve been there.

Wanting to help their children and making peace, they must accept the child’s decision to have, do and say. The choices of understanding happen at an early age. If you take their choices as an insult, and respond with hostility, you break their heart and you are the one left to look in the mirror. When a child doesn’t understand consequences, too much freedom will lead to issues. Too much screen or phone time is unhealthy living and will damage growth.

Male Circumcision

Soraya & I also spoke about infant male circumcision. This is something inherent to American countries, and something that is not common in other countries. There are so many misconceptions among society, and the medical community who profits from its continuation, about culture, cleanliness/disease prevention,

This is the most thorough resource I have found for understanding how absolutely unnecessary & damaging Circumcision is for boys. My conclusion: Just don’t! Here is what a male experiencing this goes through.

Here is some information about male infant circumcision:

  • Performing a totally unnecessary procedure on an infant who is not at the age of consent is a human rights issue.
  • As the vaginal hood over the clitoris aids in sexual pleasure, so does the foreskin of the penis. This means that circumcised men & women tend to experience less pleasure than uncircumcised people.
  • Amputation of this body part is aesthetic in American society (“it’s what everyone does”, they say. “It’s cleaner”, they say) and it is extremely lucrative to the remainder of medical community which still supports it.
  • The reports of injury, disfigurement, infection and even death have been reported, and many more which have been kept under the radar.
  • It there is no threat to a child’s health, this – again – is medically unnecessary.
  • The idea that the uncircumcised child will be made fun of is a dated excuse for amputation and mutilation. There is a large population of uncircumcised males in the U.S. To think otherwise is a dated way of thinking.
  • As fewer parents request it, the culture is changing from the bottom, up.
  • This is a trauma, chosen and imposed upon a newborn by a parent.
  • Internationally adopted children are being circumcised far beyond the age of infancy in order to “match” their American family members and peers.

Soraya Miré works tirelessly to keep this conversation alive and open, and to continue the progress of the laws against this. Her ability to educate the world about this important issue will continue as she is developing a screenplay of “The Girl with Three Legs: A Memoir”. With the brutal honesty of that which exists in real life, and the Truth of her story, this story must be told!

I can’t say this is in the past”, she says. “What about the next one, and the next one? All of us are born into raising our voices to advance humanity, to make the world a better place for all of us. When I’m feeling good, I can bless others and pay it forward. I stand in acceptance.”

To read more about Soraya’s story, visit http://www.sorayamire.org/

To donate fund to further Soraya’s work, and the making of her film, email: sorayamire@hotmail.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/sorayamire

Lorri L. Jean, CEO of Los Angeles LGBT Center: Raising A Baby Activist

Happy Pride Month!!  For the 6th month of this series, I want to introduce you to a true change maker in the LGBTQ+ community, and someone very special to my family and our community here in Los Angeles, as well as internationally.  As we continue to face the most challenging time in LGBT history in this decade, I wanted to this month’s activist to be one who exemplifies true leadership.
I chose the person who I first hugged after the Pulse night club shooting, who I first reached out to about my sheer terror when Trump was “elected” president, and who is my favorite hearing person to interpret for when I work as an ASL interpreter.  Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, is a champion for LGBT rights.  By all accounts, she was born that way.  Over the years, through my work with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, she has been an inspiration, a role model and a friend.  I am truly honored to share her amazing journey.
Here is her story, and what her work at the Los Angeles LGBT Center can teach all of us.
Childhood
The eldest of 3 children (a fact that really impacted who she became), Lorri was an outgoing kid, fearless, with lots of confidence & self-esteem.  She was always forming groups, organizing kids and presenting leadership skills from a very early age.  She was always fearless.
Trike at the age of 3
Lorri, Age 3 (Photo courtesy of Lorri L. Jean)
Lorri’s family grew up very poor.  They grew their own food and her mom made their clothes, but they never felt poor.  Her parents’ determination and resourcefulness, along with the constant message that nothing should ever stand in the way of what their children wanted to accomplish, made life rich and full.   Being unafraid of failure, and receiving the constant message that they could do anything, surely took this activist in the right direction!
“Mom says I always had an infinity to the underdog; a keen sense of the unjust or unfair,” Lorri recalls.
Her father was a farmer who experienced a great deal of loss in his industry, but he always managed to recover.  With the help of an investor, who was able to help him start a business raising feeder pigs to sell to the pork industry, her dad decided to raise livestock.  One of the loads of pigs contracted cholera.  In the largest pork-producing operation west of the Mississippi, regulations under then-President Richard Nixon’s administration required all of the sick animals be eradicated.  The federal and state governments were to split the cost of paying for the animals, but since pork was at its highest price ever, the state didn’t have the money, so they refused.
Mr. Jean refused to allow the herd to be killed if he wouldn’t be fully paid for it and he smuggled in vaccine from Mexico to save the herd from dying.  The state retaliated by prohibiting replenishment of the herd as long as any exposed animals remained on the property, and by limiting the sale of the pigs to its own meat-packing board, which promptly reduced the price by half.
The result that the family their farm, and everything along with it. Homeless and broke, her father got a trailer and some land in the Arizona desert, where they stayed, with no water or power, until they could afford the utilities.  This experience was a transformational one for 13-year-old Lorri.  “I thought that was so wrong,” she remembers. “That’s when I decided to become a lawyer, and I was going to change the world so wrong things like that wouldn’t happen.”
As the oldest female child in a farming family, the injustice of sexism showed up when she was deemed by her father as incapable to do the work that she’d been able to do before puberty.  He became cautious of hired hands, and when Lorri asserted that she wanted to become a vet, she was told that women could only be small-pet vets because livestock or large animal veterinarians were only men.  But that didn’t stop this budding feminist!  She showed her support of equal rights by using her voice to highlight disparities within her school sports teams.  The budget wasn’t equal, and neither was the use of sports equipment.  As editor of the school newspaper, Lorri only got more fired up when the football coach threatened her if she didn’t stop trying to expose the injustice.  She absolutely would not give up!
College
As she grew up, Lorri continued to be deeply affected by, and tuned into, the issues surrounding the treatment of migrant workers.  She was a justice-seeker from the start, and that fire only grew as she gained tools of leadership, and recognized the ability to use them to make change.  The treatment of women and girls was extremely impactful as well.  When she started college, Lorri became a leader once again, heading the Arizona State University Campus Women’s Affairs Board, championing for, and winning, the increase of OBGYN services and the right of the 17,000 women in the student population to have access to birth control within those services.
“A deep part of myself knew that I was a lesbian, although I wasn’t conscious of it until my last semester of college.  By then, I had realized sexism and homophobia were impacting me, and I decided to become a civil rights lawyer.”
Law School 
In 1979, she moved to law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where her activism lens turned to issues affecting the lesbian community.  The school did not advertise that it is a Catholic institution in their catalog.  Lorri was one of only 2 openly gay people attending.  She founded the first Gay & Lesbian Law Students Association of Georgetown University Law Center but, after the student bar association, faculty senate and Dean approved the organization, it was vetoed by the President of the entire University, a closeted priest whose internalized homophobia rose up.  This led the undergrads and law students to sue, claiming discrimination and seeking the right to proceed.   After nine years of litigation, where the students first lost but then won on appeal, the university eventually settled the case, allowing the student groups to exist.
Work Life
San Diego Republic Party Protest
Photo courtesy of Lorri L. Jean
Eventually, Lorri moved from lesbian issues to issues affecting all LGBT people.  She was asked to serve on the board of the Gay & Lesbian Education Fund, which raised money and gave grants for projects educating the straight community about LGBT concerns.  She later became the president of the Gay Activists Alliance.  In the worst years of the AIDS pandemic, she realized she found working in the community more rewarding than practicing law.
In 1989, at the age of 32, she applied for the position of Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund.  She would have been the first woman in the position.  Even though the staff unanimously endorsed her, a male candidate was chosen. In the aftermath, she was offered the job of Deputy Regional Director of FEMA’s Region 9, its largest and busiest regional headquarters, based in San Francisco.  As a result of this promotion, she became the highest ranking openly LGBT person in the entire federal government.  During her 3.5 year tenure there, the region experienced a presidentially declared disaster every 30 days.
3 years later, a Los Angeles-based friend called about a job in the movement.  Though better known activists had applied for the position, their management experience could not compete with Lorri’s and she began her work with the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center (now called the Los Angeles LGBT Center).  She had just started dating Gina Calvelli and they were not living together, but they decided to make the commitment and move to L.A. together.
“I knew my parents would think I’d lost my mind, moving to L.A. for a ‘gay thing’,” Lorri recalls. “But I knew nothing like the L.A. Center existed in the world.”  Lorri & Gina settled in Los Angeles in December 1992, got married in 2008, and have a wonderful partnership to this day.  Lorri worked at The Center from January 1993 until February 1999, then returned in mid-June 2003 and has been with us, by us and for us ever since.
20170513-AEWW-BetsyMartinez-0110
Photo courtesy of Lorri Jean (Photo Credit: Betsy Martinez)
What issues are at the forefront of your work now?
The Center is caring for the community.  Things are changing quickly.  There is an increasing demand to tackle homelessness with LGBT teens and the needs of seniors, as baby boomers age.  
How has the Trump Administration has affected the LGBT community:
The current Administration has implemented countless anti-LGBT policy decisions impacting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, many of which have flown under the radar.  For example, they have reversed position on decisions by the Obama Administration finding that LGBT people are not protected by the Civil Rights Act.
The Trans community are the most marginalized in our community.  It is no accident that the right-wing started focusing on Trans POC, the group most victimized by hate crimes and HIV infection. They are the smallest group with the least protections.  It is incumbent on LGB’s in community to do a lot of standing up for the T’s.
Before Trump, we were complacent because we made so much progress under Obama.  The election of Trump, and his backlash against us, reveals the fragility of the gains we’ve made. Our progress will never be secure until full acceptance of LGBTQ people becomes part of the fabric of our society.  Until then, all of us must volunteer and donate so our movement and organizations like the Center can do more.
He (Trump) is the crazy one that we all see, but he populated his administration with extreme religious idiologs, as well as appointing numerous anti-LGBT judges to the courts..  Those appointments alone could change history for decades to come, because federal judges are there until they retire or die.
Just a few of the additional anti-LGBT initiatives of the Trump Administration include:
  • On the day of his inauguration, the White House AIDS web page was taken down.
  • The Department of Education has rescinded protections for LGBTQ school kids.  
  • Rescinding the rules prohibiting companies who do business with the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; many of the people impacted live in states without protections.
  • Allowing Transgender people in the military repealed.
  • Deterred the Stonewall National Monument, which was approved by the Obama administration, by carving out a piece of the monument on which the flag pole was placed, so there would be no rainbow flag on federal property.
  • Department of Housing and Urban development removed LGBT nondiscrimination policies. 
  • Executive orders to allow anti-LGBT discrimination by people claiming religious freedom.
  • Hate crimes have increased exponentially against LGBT, People of Color and immigrants.
What can we, The People, do about them?  
  • The Mid-term election on November 6 could change everything if Democrats regain control of either or both houses of Congress.  This would slow, and perhaps even stop, the Trump Administration plans to eviscerate LGBT programs and protections.
  • Don’t change your party registration!  We need to convince the many Republicans deeply concerned about Trump that they needn’t change their party registration, but FOR THIS ELECTION, they need to send a message, to the President and Congress, by voting for Democrats so that the nation can get back on track.
  • Californians are a lucky, generally progressive lot. We are an important state with a lot of ability to throw wrenches in the works. People need to support elected leaders, obstructing the harmful initiatives of the Trump Administration.
  • Republican Senators don’t really care what Californians think. But, Californians can run phone banks to call voters in states with senators who might be willing to vote against Trump initiatives.  We can convince those voters to call their Senators on key issues.  Our Center’s resistance squad organized such efforts around healthcare reform, succeeding in persuading literally thousands of voters to call their own senators.  We used software that enabled us to patch them through, directly to their Senators’ offices, and we were able to track that the voters actually stayed on the line and made the calls.
  • Come off the couch , don’t confuse posting on social media with effective social change. Social media alone won’t do it.
  • Marching has it’s place, but good old-fashioned grass roots organizing is what creates real change.  Get involved.  Start your own movement.
  • We must do everything we can – talk about the issues and make sure that people don’t get complacent and don’t give up.
What would you say to the young people, who cannot yet vote, who want to make change in their communities or in the world?
Look at Parkland.  Youth can often raise issues more effectively with elected leaders than adults can’t, even though they can’t vote.  Raised voices are harder to ignore, they have the ability to change the minds of the world around them. Young people are more powerful than they get credit for, as we have seen there.
What would you say to people who are already activists, but who feel fatigued & enraged at the direction the world is going, and to the people who access their knowledge from mainstream media, social media, etc., who want to do something, but don’t know where to begin?
At a time of so many policy reversals, and the resulting fear and fatigue, we’ve seen numerous instances of people who should be natural allies turning on each other instead of turning their ire on the real enemies.  Some ways to reduce the likelihood of community cannibalism include:
Take lessons  from Trump such as:
  • The importance of being thoughtful and ensuring you have the actual facts before you reach a conclusion. Social media makes it easier to do none of those things.
  • If you are not wiling to say it to a person’s face, don’t type it.
  • If you have a concern, don’t email. Ask for an in-person meeting or make a phone call, so you can express your concerns live and in person. A person’s tone, when typed, is often unread & inaccurately amplified.  We’re kinder when we’re speaking.
With the latest gun violence events, and the conversations around it, what are your thoughts, and how is the LGBT community affected by the current and potential laws around it?
The NRA misleadingly claims to be an ally of the LGBT community. In the 90s, they were a bipartisan organization.  Now, they are almost exclusively Republican.  This is clearly not just about gun rights anymore.  Now, the NRA is full of Right-wing extremists who go much further than advocating for gun rights.  They are advancing a comprehensive anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-progressive agenda that threatens much of what we hold dear.  This community is among the top 2 groups experiencing hate crimes, and many of those victims are shot to death.  All hate crimes become much more deadly when guns are involved.  This violence, and other types of discrimination cause health problems and increased suicide rates.
As a parent in a same-sex marriage, with an African-American female child, what advice do you have for me?
  • Stay involved in our community. People need to hear voices & experiences that are different from their own lives.
  • Understand that it is very important to care for the underdogs.
  • Raising your child’s social consciousness will be her greatest asset.
  • Understand the societal forces against her.
  • Live your truth, get involved, believe you can make a difference, and try to do it.

To donate to the Los Angeles LGBT Center, click here.

(Featured photo courtesy of Lorri Jean. Photo credit: Getty Images)

#MSDStrong, 3 Months Later: Raising A Baby Activist

On Valentine’s Day 2018, my heart broke.
Alyssa Alhadeff, 14 years old.
Martin Duque Anguiano, 14 years old.
Jaime Guttenberg, 14 years old.
Alaina Petty, 14 years old.
Gina Montalto, 14 years old.
Cara Loughran, 14 years old.
Alexander Schachter, 14 years old.
Luke Hoyer, 15 years old.
Peter Wang, 15years old.
Carmen Schentrup, 16 years old.
Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, 17 years old.
Helena Ramsay, 17 years old.
Nicholas Dworet, 17 years old.
Meadow Pollock, 18 years old.
Scott Beigel, 35 years old.
Christopher Hixon, 49 years old.
Aaron Feis, 37 years old.
These are the victims of the most recent mass shooting in America.
Say their names.
D662D878-E703-4A59-B1A9-4BBBCBCE63E2
MSD Vigil (Photo: Alana Dascent)
It has been 3 months since this horrific and completely avoidable tragedy.
Why does this keep happening?!?  Why isn’t anyone with power in America doing something to keep our children safe?  How can I feel safe sending my child to school when nothing ever seems to change?? These were my cries on that day and since.
In May 1993, one of my classmates shot and killed another.  I feel it in my skin and my bones, every time there is another school/church/nightclub/movie theater shooting.  I wonder why it hasn’t stopped.  I wonder when it will.
The media descended on the school in Parkland, as students processed their grief and disbelief over this horror happening, in real time.  I watched them rise up to ask Trump, the NRA, the FBI, the Sheriff, the armed guard on site and the politicians how they could have allowed this happen yet again.  I watched parents grieve, holding one another up as their world fell out from under them.  I watched their grief and outrage spark a national movement. The survivors became activists. These children did what the adults before them should have already done.
The shooter, whose name I choose not to acknowledge here, was known for being a tormentor, threatening to rape female classmates, attaching the tails of small animals that he claimed to have killed on his lunchbox/backpack, bragging about violence and being an overall menace dating back to early middle school.
He was allowed to slip through the cracks of the system.  By the time he entered MSD on Valentine’s Day, he had been expelled from school.  After using an AR15, which he purchased legally, to kill and injure the students and teachers, he blended in with the crowd evacuating the school, bought himself a soda and waited to be apprehended.  There were warning signs.. Many, in fact, including bragging posts on his own social media, reports by his host family, a report to the Florida FBI.
The MSD students rose up and answered my internal cries.  They marched, walked out, gave speeches and used the media to share the message #NeverAgain.  They took Action.
The mainstream media has stopped covering this story almost completely now, but the issues that surround this ever-growing problem continue to plague our lives.  Action is still necessary.  We are all responsible for making it happen. This post will show you how you can help those who were affected that day, and those causes that have been started as a result.
I decided to reach out, and I spoke with 2 amazing young people who, along with their classmates and parents of the living and the lost, have chosen to take some real action against the ongoing atrocities of gun violence in schools.  They want every American to join a cause and help end this horrible epidemic plaguing our country.  This post is my way of offering everyone a way to help.
Brandon Dasent & his mother, Alana, moved to Parkland last year because of the school’s wonderful reputation.  I learned of  Brandon on Twitter, when someone posted that he was a speaker representing  S.T.O.R.M. (Students Timely Organizing Revolutionary Movements) at a town hall meeting in Miami Gardens, an area that experiences gun violence nearly daily.  He was there representing students of Color, and he offered some real solutions for how students, politicians and law enforcement could work together to establish conflict resolution programs, locally and nationwide.
E96E9BDA-B15D-45DA-A869-8B4586AB8CBF
Brandon Dasent, 17 years old (Photo courtesy of Brandon & Alana Dasent)
In affluent Parkland, people were surprised to learn that there were People of Color (POC) there at all.  STORM’s goal is to establish a coalition for everyone working for change in the community to come together and make sure that People of Color are included in the solutions.  Inclusivity is key for this group of students.  As a young Black man, Brandon spoke from his heart.
EA94D3FD-D8DC-416B-8843-E167F55F6104
The students who started STORM, spreading their message of inclusion & real change from the ground, up (Photo courtesy of Alana Dasent)
I watched as this articulate young man described being targeted by the police stationed at the school after the shooting.  He described oversleeping and arriving to school just in time for homeroom one day, and needing to use the restroom.  With his hall pass, he rushed down the hall and was stopped by an officer outside the bathroom door.  He was questioned about where he was going, why he didn’t use the bathroom before coming to school, why he was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, and why his hair was messy.
My immediate response as this scenario unfolded was that this would not have happened if Brandon were not Black.  The issue to of racial profiling has come to be an undeniable issue, and the fact that it could now penetrate our children of Color at the schools they are attending is terrifying.  A white student would not have been interrogated in this manner once they answered where they were coming from and going in the same scenario.
Whether we like it or not, race relations with law enforcement is a major factor when we discuss the issue of gun violence.  Since POC face less opportunity, and therefore higher rates of poverty, we see a high rate of gun violence in the African-American and Hispanic communities as well.  As we begin to take steps to protect our children from guns in schools, it is crucial that we disallow racial profiling to bleed into interfering with protecting the very children likely to be racially targeted.
Rachel Padnis is on the yearbook staff, has been in the school band and is an artist in her own right.  As her classmates were speaking out, she wanted an alternative to public speaking, so she turned to her art.  A local business took a drawing that she made and made it into a digital design. This began her fundraising efforts, with sales of stickers and shirts, which she has grown to a multitude of products that raise money for the MSD PTA and the needs of the teachers, surviving students and the purchasing of school equipment.  She works tirelessly to spread the word.  Buy her products and support this cause here.

68CA6558-7651-4CBB-950C-092A9558F28E

Here are the other ways that you can support the various efforts started in the Parkland community:
  1. Alyssa Alhadeff- Make Schools Safe, Inc. Started by her parents
  1. Scott Beigel- Scott J Beigel Memorial Fund
  1. Martin Duque Anguiano
  1. Nicholas Dworet
  1. Aaron Feis – no longer collecting donations
  1. Jaime Guttenberg- Orange Ribbons For Jaime, started by her father
  1. Chris Hixon-gofundme for his family
  1. Luke Hoyer – no longer collecting donations
  1. Cara Loughran- gofundme for her family
  1. Gina Montalto memorial foundation
  1. Joaquin Oliver – Change the Ref, started by his parents
  1. Alaina Petty- Her Dad started the Walk Up Foundation
  1. Meadow Pollack – Meadow’s Movement started by her father
  1. Helena Ramsay – Memorial fund
  1. Alex Schachter -safe schools for Alex, started by his father
  1. Carmen Schentrup- Memorial fund
  1. Peter Wang- Memorial fund
RPadnis Sticker
I got my sticker. Get yours!
Take a stand. Take action.  Write letters.  Apply pressure to your politicians to work toward sensible gun laws.  Volunteer.  Take your kids with you.  Raise citizens of the world.  Make the deaths of these kids count for something more than another statistic. VOTE.  Say their names.

Heaven

As I join the world in trying to make heads or tails of the fact that the United States has more school shootings than any other country in the world, I was given the direction to “Define Heaven”. Our children are Heaven. They hold the future in their hands, and must be kept safe.

Heaven

Heaven is where you are.

Your life is Heaven.

Heaven is you, safe.

It is the sound of your laughter, your giggles, your cries; your button nose, and the coils that are like silk to my fingers.

Heaven is in your tiny hands and feet, which wont be so tiny anymore, but which will still be Heaven.

It is being with you, no matter what we are doing.

It is being with you after we have been apart.

It is the sun and the stars and the moon that you love so much, whose distance wont touch how much I love you.

Heaven is in your voice, as you tell me so tenderly that you love your family.

It is in the way you wrap your arms around my neck and bury your face to be as close as you can.

It is in the way that you let music take you and you move me to dance with you.

Heaven is watching you grow & change at a rate that makes my head spin.

It is seeing how compassionate you are, and what a good friend you are.

Even though you are so beautifully small, Heaven also makes you mighty.

Your presence here has already made the world better.

You remind me that Heaven is right here, working through you, my child.

You remind me that I live to make sure it stays that way.

You remind me that, as I hold the gift of being your mother,

I am gifted with the responsibility to join all other Heaven-holders to protect Heaven.

Honoring Heather Heyer: Raising A Baby Activist

Activists begin with a spark that comes from deep inside our hearts.  The desire for kindness, compassion, justice and change is what sets it all into motion.  Sometimes it shows up in our children, standing up for the oppressed or less fortunate.  And sometimes it happens for adults, in moments that turn our heads in unexpected directions.  This post, the second in the RDM “Raising a Baby Activist” series, is about both.  A child who sought to end injustice, and a mother who continues her plight to make the message louder than her loss.

I recently sat down with Susan Bro to talk about her daughter, Heather, the foundation started in her name, and how we can raise our children to be change makers from an early age.

baby girl birthday
Photo courtesy of Susan Bro

Heather Heyer was murdered 6 months ago today, on August 12, 2017, which also happens to be my daughter’s second birthday.  While my little family was relaxing in Palm Springs, celebrating our precious daughter and her bright future, a fellow mom, Susan Bro, was faced with the unimaginable loss of her 32-year-old daughter.  The entire course of the rest of Susan’s life was altered with one phone call from Heather’s friend.  Heather was at the hospital, and they were looking for her next of kin.

The Facts About Heather Heyer’s Death

The debate of whether to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, sparked a protest called “Unite the Right” by a large group of white supremacists. They gathered on that fateful August day from around the nation, at the park where the statue stood in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Heather was with a group of peaceful counter-demonstrators who supported the removal of the statue due to its oppressive and inherently racist symbolism.

They were on a barricaded section of a road that intersects a pedestrian mall.  There was a barricade at both ends, so there should not have been cars there at all.  However, the top end of the street only had one sawhorse for a barricade.  Three other vehicles had already driven past that sawhorse and were parked at the other barricaded end as the crowd flowed around them. Suddenly, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car through the crowd, striking and killing Heather.

On that 45-minute drive to find her daughter, Susan spent her time frantically calling hospitals to try and figure out where her daughter was.  Every call she made to hospitals resulted in being informed that they didn’t have a patient by that name.  When she finally located her at University of Virginia Hospital, she had to make the heartbreaking call to her ex-husband, Heather’s father. Their daughter was gone.

She was killed by a blunt force injury to the abdomen.  The last time Susan saw Heather was August 3, when they had dinner together.  She could not have imagined that would be the last time she would spend with her.

grandparent's 50th anniv.
Heather, at her grandparents’ 50th anniversary party (Photo courtesy of Susan Bro)

After an impromptu memorial for Heather, vandals urinated on the objects left behind, and left a note saying, “it’s okay to be white again.”  Her burial site must remain a secret, and extended family members must keep their distance for their own safety.  For the safety and security of her family, Susan Bro said very little about her feelings towards Donald Trump – though she did express them previously, so she referred me to the interviews which sum up her stance.  This interview is one that I remember clearly.

Watching Donald Trump go off script with such inexcusable ambivalence about this tragedy is burned into my memory.  “We condemn this egregious display of hatred, bigotry  and violence…on many sides…on many sides”, he said.  “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that.”

Childhood

Heather’s mom told me about what Heather was like as a child.  She describes her daughter as an artistic, athletic, strong-willed.  Her mom raised her to be an outspoken and independent little girl & teenager, “Though she wasn’t always easy to raise!”, she said.

IMG_0742
Stormy Face. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bro)

She wasn’t much into playing with dolls, but that wasn’t an indication of her lack of a tender heart.  She had a kindness and generosity of spirit that made her mom proud.

grandaddy
Snuggling with her doll (a rare occurrence!), Patch, and Grandaddy (Photo courtesy of Susan Bro)

Susan didn’t know the extent to which her daughter was involved in activism until after her death, but it certainly did not surprise her.  As a child, Heather and her brother, Nick, were staunch supporters of biracial siblings, defending them against racism by bullies on the school bus. There were even times that Heather received detention for standing up to a teacher at school, in support of another student. As she got older, her multicultural and LGBTQ friends also received Heather’s innate love and support.

Susan was pleased that Heather was so caring of others.  As a teacher, kindness was a fundamental belief that she held dear and worked hard to instill in her children.  She admonished any sign of a lack of it & fostered all signs of it.

Heather & Nana 2
A teenager with her Nana (Photo courtesy of Susan Bro)

Heather Heyer Foundation 

“The Foundation gives me a reason to get up and feel excited about the things that we are doing.”

On her way to retirement with her husband, Kim, all of Susan Bro’s plans – who she was completely, frankly – changed on the day that Heather was killed.  In her grief, she became the voice to carry her daughter’s message far and wide.  It certainly reached me at the core of my being.  With the money collected in a fund to help the family because of Heather’s death, Susan also began Heather Heyer Foundation.  She is a cofounder, and the face of the foundation.  The quiet retirement that she and her husband were gearing up for is now on hold indefinitely.

Though donations have tapered off, the Foundation continues and Susan, along with co-founder Alfred A. Wilson – Heather’s employer and friend – work tirelessly to maintain scholarships and develop new youth-empowerment projects.  A teacher again, Susan speaks all over the world, to schools, scout troops, and anywhere else she’s invited.  Most recently, they teamed up with AIDS Healthcare Foundation for their Stand Against Hate Project and rode in the Rose Bowl Parade.

The Foundation’s newest program called “Heyer Voices”, in development now, gives voice to its youth who develop awareness campaigns and service projects, while the grownups serve as guidance and support.  “So often, youth have told us that their voices are drowned out because they have adults talking at them.  This program will shift the voice to youth, so their ideas can be heard and put into action.”

How to Raise a Baby Activist

IMG_9571
“This is what an activist looks like” Photo by Lola Shahdadi

Susan & I spoke a lot about being mothers and how challenging it can be.  We talked about how to instill a sense of activism from a young age.

  • The key, she said, is to instill empathy. “A sense of security and love begins at home.  We must provide our children with the feelings and experiences at home so that they will carry that out into the world.”
  • Teach children not to succumb to picking on others.  “Find that kid who’s left out.  Try to hang out with people who lack that sense of belonging and love and include them.”
  • “Give them self-worth. Hate groups look for kids with low self-esteem.  They are targeting them at a higher rate than ever.”
  • “Teach empathy by buying or making gifts for people, making cookies and delivering them to your neighbors, or get involved with service projects like volunteering at your local animal shelter.”
  • “Watch for the teachable moments on television and talk about them.”

baby
Photo courtesy of Susan Bro

Heather and her mom talked about the politics of the world a lot.  They did not always agree, but they did share the same fundamental beliefs.  “Heather was really good at making me look at both sides of an issue, and we usually came out on the same side.”

One important lesson that Susan learned from her child was that it is common to respond to things viscerally, rather than to analyze the facts. The visceral reaction, that often comes from a viral post on social media, is less likely to be true.  It’s important to consult several sources and fact check rather than to immediately jump on the bandwagon of upheaval.

The social justice work that Heather gave her life for was not extinguished by her death.  It continues, louder than ever.  A regular young woman who loved her job and to party with her friends has become an icon for that justice.

On this day, and moving forward, I ask that we all remember Heather’s message, and carry it with us.  Be courageous, be informed, speak from your heart.  Do not give up making peaceful and positive change in the world.  Most importantly, as you ask yourself if you should stand against hate, remember what Heather knew with all her heart: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.”

IMG_0158 - Copy
Photo courtesy of Susan Bro

A very special thank you to Susan Bro permitting me to interview her for this article.  It is was an honor to speak with a mother who is sharing such a powerful Truth.  To learn more about Heather Heyer Foundation, please visit:  https://www.heatherheyerfoundation.com/

Sister Helen Prejean – Raising a Baby Activist

Every morning, my daughter and I stand in front of her dresser mirror, and we read “She counts 112 blessings every day” from a piece of artwork in her room.  Then, starting with the top her head, we count her crown, forehead, eyes, down her face and end at 15 with her heart.  Every day, I end it with “And your heart is your biggest blessing.”  My hope is that kindness, if nothing else, will be her mark on the world.

As I begin this series of Raising a Baby Activist interviews, I can think of no better way than with the key element of compassion.  If you haven’t heard of Sister Helen Prejean, perhaps you have seen the movie Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, based on her book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.  For me, her work is the epitome of human compassion and dignity.

Sister Helen Prejean 2
Helen in the doorway of the death row facility at Angola Prison ~ Courtesy of Ministry Against the Death Penalty

With a third book soon to be released, Sister Helen is on the road spreading her message, encouraging people to educate themselves on the issues around this controversial topic.  I recently had the opportunity to sit down with her communications manager, Griffin Hardy, to learn about her journey, work and mission.

Early Life

Born in 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sister Helen’s father was an attorney, and her upbringing was one of privilege.  They had servants in their home, not unusual for families of certain means during that time.  When she was 18, she became a Catholic nun.  In the 1950s, nuns wore habits, Mass was said in Latin, and the sisters received male names.  Their work was assigned within the church confines.  Sister Helen taught middle school English and was a religious education director.

With the liberalization and modernization of the Catholic church known as Vatican 2, nun habits were abandoned, original names restored and, much to Sister Helen’s dismay at the time, roles changed to working out in the service of the community at large.  Her response to this was “we are nuns, not social workers!”  Indeed, she was resistant to these changes from the traditional, but these changes led her into a whole new world, and her life’s work.

New Life Experiences

In the early 1980s, Sister Helen attended a retreat with her religious community, where the presenter, a sociologist named Sister Mary Augusta Neal, addressed the Gospel of Jesus, Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,”
New International Version (NIV),

presenting that idea that the Good News is that the poor will be poor no longer.  This was a defining moment in her life as she realized the need for human compassion among all people.  She moved to a housing project in New Orleans, where she dedicated her life to working with and helping the poor and underserved.

She was living in low-income community that was 100% African-American.  She realized that those folks who served her home as a child were only familiar to her on a first-name basis.  Her new neighbors were providing her with a new perspective into the “other America”, and woke her up to a new way of seeing all people as she learned about them and their different life experiences.

Sister Helen Prejean 1
Helen in front of Hope House in the St. Thomas housing project ~ Courtesy of Ministry Against the Death Penalty

Her work in this community involved improving literacy, and working with a prison coalition.  The director of the coalition asked if the sisters would write letters to Death Row inmates.  That is how she came to know, and become spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killers of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.   Pat Sonnier’s case was the one that involved his brother, Eddie, testifying against him in exchange for a life sentence. Eddie died in 2013 and Sister Helen had continued to visit him on a regular basis in the years since Pat’s execution in 1984.

Looking back on this connection with Sonnier, Sister Helen jokes, “The problem wasn’t writing to him.  It was that he wrote back!”  And so, this pen pal began to reveal himself to her, then asked her to visit him.  She made the 3-hour journey to the Louisiana/Mississippi border to the death row facility where he was being held.  There is not much information to prepare one for this experience as much information about facilities of this nature is deliberately kept secret.  This was a completely foreign experience for Sister Helen, and one that proved to be an enormous light bulb moment.  She spent several years as Sonnier’s spiritual advisor, helped him secure a new lawyer and was present at his execution.

Activist Life Lessons

“People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life.” 

  • There have always been light bulb moments and the reveal of new perspectives for this humble and amazing woman.  When she met Sonnier, she saw a human being.  Her service means being present with people where they are. It means having empathy and reinforcing human dignity.  There is more to these people, who many view as nothing but monsters.  That is the bottom line.
  • A regret that Sister Helen in the case of her role in Patrick Sonnier’s life was that she didn’t connect with the families of his victims until they happened to meet at a parole hearing.  They are not on the opposite side of this, and she doesn’t have to choose a side to be present with people.
  • Human dignity is not only prisoners, but everybody.  Developing, reinforcing and applying general awareness daily.

 How to be an Activist

“Ignited passion can happen at any age.”  We are so often paralyzed by the injustice of a situation.  Once you’ve made that realization, do something.  If Sister Helen can accomplish coming to this understanding at 40, imagine what young people can do.  The sooner you start, the easier it is to apply human dignity to your work daily and effectively.  There are different levels of commitment, but every person has the ability to do something.

  • Write a letter
  • Contact an elected official
  • Attend a march or rally

The sooner you start, the easier it is to apply human dignity to your work daily and effectively.

The Death Penalty

For a very long time, the political framework of the death penalty put all parties on the wrong side.  As time has gone on, everything from subjective faith-based beliefs to financial concerns.  Democrats added abolition of it to their platform in 2016.

It is a widely held belief that it is more cost-effective to put an inmate to death than to sentence them to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.  That is not the case.    The counterintuitive Truth is that it costs more to house and kill a death row inmate.  Though Republicans may not publicly oppose it, Democrats and Republicans have formed a coalition on this important social issue, for independent reasons.  Even the very Republican Koch Brothers are in support of Social Justice Reform!

Most people don’t know much about the death penalty because a lot of information about the process is kept secret.   That’s the only way that the death penalty continues to be propped up.  It would be very difficult to defend the idea of taking a defenseless person, shackling them, marching them into a room, putting them on a table, and pumping them full of poison. It’s the most premeditated of killings. It’s the most premeditated of killings. Rather than defend the indefensible, our governments do all they can to hide the realities of capital punishment. Laws have been passed to hide just about everything about the process.  We know more about how veterinarians euthanize pets than about how our government kills human beings. -Griffin Hardy

Today

Sister Helen has 35 years in her line of work with Death Row inmates and her work in under-served communities.  She was present for 5 more Death Row executions.  She is the public face of the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, and is currently spiritual advisor to 2 Death Row inmates and also works with the families involved.  She is releasing a new book in the fall, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.

As Ella & I count her heart as her biggest blessing each day, my hope is that she is inspired by the work of activists like Sister Helen Prejean, whose heart is surely her biggest blessing.

Sister Helen Prejean 3.jpg
Helen visiting with Dobie Gillis Williams. Helen was Dobie’s spiritual advisor. He was executed at Angola in 1999 ~ Courtesy of Ministry Against the Death Penalty

My deepest gratitude goes to Griffin Hardy for taking the time to talk with me about this crucial issue in our American society.  The work of the Ministry, and all its staff, are instrumental to the education around all of the complexities of the death penalty.  I’m certainly inspired and more informed now.  I hope that you are as well.

To donate, purchase her books and support the continued work of the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, please go to https://www.sisterhelen.org/ .

My Article was Published! Here’s the Link

I have been reading this online publication for some time now, and I love it. Today, they published an essay that I wrote from my heart, about the day that we met our daughter. Thank you, Motherly, for sharing this piece of our journey.

https://www.mother.ly/love/the-minute-we-got-that-call-i-knew-you-were-our-daughter

7 Ways to Honor Your Adopted Child’s Transracial Identity

As I look back so fondly on our adoption experience, I want to share some lessons that have come out of our multicultural family, created through transracial adoption.

As I learn more, I will do more. We work hard every day to be the best and most supportive parents that we can be.  As a mother, a middle-Eastern woman, an activist, and a Citizen of the World, I have a base knowledge and first-hand experience of the issues surrounding racism but adopting our daughter was a new experience for both me and my wife.

We approached our decision to adopt a Black child easily because we believe, like many people, that “love is love”, “all you need is love” and that “love has no color”.  Love is undeniably important, but it is not enough.  In the case of our transracial adoption, it quickly became apparent that these sentiments are naïve, and lined with a cozy layer of privilege.

We need much more than love to be the best parents that we can be to any person. I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about a resourceful awareness, the willingness to foster the growth of the child as an empowered individual, and the ability to use our own experiences to make life the best it can be for the future of our adopted children.

We must push our own boundaries, go outside our comfort zones, and help our children build their own racial identities, with all of the complexities that come with that, from day one. That is how we honor them.

In this article, using my own family as an example,  I will highlight 7 ways in which you can honor the identity of your adopted child, our daughter, Ella, in my case. As I do not intend to lump all people of color into the experience, I will speak only from the perspective of our cultures/ethnicities.

Lola Shahdadi

1. Learn the Facts.

As a multicultural family who adopted through the foster care system, we received little training from our agency regarding transracial adoption.  We were given book suggestions about the subject, but the lack of emphasis left us ignorant to what it all meant for our child. Focused insight is necessary and crucial to prepare families appropriately to raise a child who is not of the same ethnicity and/or culture as them, or who is a person of color that is not the same as the rest of the family.  As a result, I had to learn ways to honor this need for my child and our family.

Our children are adopted into our families, and that is often not their choice.  Providing a safe space for children to find their own identities (in my daughter’s case, as a Black woman) would be egregious to ignore.

We read books about adoption, tell stories of the day we brought her home, and talk about how special her Adoption Day was.  Keeping her birth parents in her story is crucial.  They are where she came from.  They gave her life!  This will not ever be ignored.  This is part of honoring who she is.

2. Understand the issues surrounding our child’s ethnicity.

I must be direct when I say that when adopting transracially, it is crucial to be educated about the issues of ethnicity (perhaps one about which you know a little beforehand), and an understanding of ethnic-racial challenges both now and potentially, in the future.  Adoptive parents need to make the extra effort to allow their adopted child an opportunity to experience people who can be mirrors for them, and where they can feel a true sense of self and community.

In order to do so, learn the correct language/terminology (racism, cultural appropriation, transracial, for example), and use it, openly, as a mirror for others.  Depending on where you live, this can be a real challenge.

Adoptive parents have fears that the child will identify so much with people who are the same ethnicity as them that they will leave their adoptive family.  When our children grow up knowing that they can trust us to put their needs first, that will not happen.  This is the best way to offer that knowledge.

Lola Shahdadi

3. Make community connections.

Give them racial mirrors. Children need to see themselves in others. This includes people who are the same color as them. I will go anywhere and do anything if it is in the best interest of my child. I attend a radically inclusive church. It was started by a gay man, is attended by same-sex, adoptive, and biological families, transgender people, people of color and those with diverse backgrounds. They celebrate diversity at every service.

Since I am a stay-at-home-working-mom, and my daughter does not attend daycare or preschool yet, my wife and I have joined programs that provide child development and enrichment classes across our city. This has given us the opportunity to meet many different families and experience diversity in safe settings.

I have joined parent groups that enrich our experiences. For example, we participated in Black History Month events at our LGBT Center this year.

Now that our daughter is a mobile and aware toddler, I watch her notice when she sees mirrors of herself.  I watch her love it.  If you don’t have these kinds of activities in your local community, drive the distance.

I cannot emphasize this enough!  Join in-person and online support groups.  There are many amazing groups out there, and many more families like yours than you might realize.  I am a member of some incredible online transracial adoption groups.  TAP 101 and Transracial Adoption Perspectives are two of the best that I’ve found on Facebook.  If there is a shortage of the type of support group that you need, start one!  You can be a change-maker.

As with any online engagement, consider the history/politics/conflicts of these groups by having dialogues with the admins and founders.  If they are open, honest and willing to engage, you’ve found your place.

Gaining the education and tools you need can be the enrichment your child needs to face the challenges that come with being a transracially adopted person.  We have the power to empower. Read. Research. Do.

5. Provide the opportunity for open conversation about race, culture, racism, and community.

For our very verbal 2-year-old, conversations are simple but meaningful.  We talk about the different types of families that we see (two daddies, two mommies, a mommy and a daddy, siblings, one very strong mommy or daddy).  We read books about the colors of us.  We talk about different things that other cultures value and care about, and we ask her lots of questions.  It’s amazing how much she answers back with her own thoughts!  When she notices someone that is also Black, she feels comfortable sharing this, and we encourage it.

Our hope is that discussing adoption and ethnicity, and all that comes with it, is so natural for her that she won’t remember some big talk about these topics.

Get books with characters that look like your child.  We have some wonderful books that provide mirrors for Ella, and they help encourage her to express thoughts and feelings in a way that we cannot.  She loves to pick out which hair looks like hers.  She’s starting to pick out people who have the same skin color as herself.  I knew it was time to start styling her hair with twists and pigtails because of the conversations during story time.

Share other adoptee stories.  There are many online and written opportunities in the form of blogs, memoirs, online spaces, and transracial perspective groups.  There are spaces online to begin and advance knowledge.

6. Every family is unique. Have your own traditions.

Along with engaging in our own local community, we travel, learn about the world, and are developing our own family traditions.  When we travel, we look for experiences which are unique to the culture of where we are visiting.  The experiences have been rich and plentiful for all three of us.  It has special to see the world through the eyes of a child.

We live in a major metropolitan area with a multitude of opportunities.  We have the privilege of living in a diverse neighborhood, playing with children of color, have multicultural experiences, and will send her to a diverse school, when the time comes.

We also honor our family unit.  We are unique in our own ways, and that is something in which my girl takes pride and joy.  We have traditions around the family table, our own backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities. We take pride in these traditions and our toddler already acknowledges how much that means to her.

7. Discuss Challenges.

Use examples from their own experiences, those of the people of color in your world, as well as those out in the world at large, and throughout history.  As I hear more and more about the racism and civil injustices of the Black community in our country, I realize just how important this is.  We have books about the challenges and successes in the Black community, from slaves to civil rights activists to lawyers, doctors, scientists, and artists, and we have already begun reading them.

I anticipate many more lessons as our daughter grows up.  Steps toward knowledge and empowerment allow us the opportunity to minimize the challenges, or at least allow her to feel heard and supported as she faces and embraces them.  We want our daughter to know about herself as a Black woman, where she came from, and to make her own decisions about where to go with it all.  I hope that she becomes an empowered woman, with a strong sense of Self.

This article was first published in theParentVoice.Com, an online magazine for multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural families on (date). It is republished here with permission.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑