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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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“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.”

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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.”

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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/

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