Book News

I’ve always intended to turn this blog into a book, and now I’m one step closer! I am now represented by Beth Marshea of Ladderbird Agency, and in the next few years she will be helping me sell Highland Rising to a publisher.

In the meantime, I’ve signed a contract with New Society Publishers to publish The Token: Common Sense Ideas for Increasing Diversity in Your Organization. Some of the work described in The Token is in my blog post here. The book will be coming out Fall 2020. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter to get a link for preordering.

In the meantime, support my work by coming a patron on Patreon.

Snow Days

It snowed in Gastonia this December. I only remember two big snows from my childhood, but my daughter has experienced two big snows in just one year. I was curious if North Carolina was getting more snow due to climate change. While temperature swings have been more drastic in the past thirty years, the amount of snowfall has not increased.

I was a kid during the snows of ’88 and ’99.

I was also curious about the impact of snow on the city, especially on residents of Highland who are usually lower income and minorities.

Schools/Daycares Closed

The snow started on a Saturday night, and Gaston County Schools closed school on Monday and Tuesday and delayed school on Wednesday and Thursday. Working parents would have needed to find childcare for the days off, especially since programs like the Boys and Girls Club and YMCA were also closed or delayed. Even two hour delays mean the parents might have to wait until schools opened to drop their children off and go in to work. Office workers usually have flexible schedules, but factories and restaurants don’t. Refusing to come in to work because of no childcare could mean a missed paycheck or even losing your job.

Government Offices Closed

Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services was closed on Monday. That means applications for food stamps, TANF, and childcare vouchers would have to wait a few more days to be received and processed. Fortunately many transactions can be completed online, but those who need money for food and living usually don’t have a lot of savings for days like these. Even if the offices were open, some people may not have been able to travel.

The City of Gastonia posted pictures of their plow trucks

Street Plowing

The city has several trucks that go into service plowing when needed. These trucks are run by the same staff that drive leaf, trash, and recycling trucks, and streets are plowed in order of priority. People close to a major road may have been able to drive on Monday. My cul de sac was not plowed until Thursday. Many long-term residents don’t have the skills to navigate wet and icy roads since they are so rare, which is why the city police recommended that people only travel if it was absolutely necessary. They reported 13 fender benders alone on Sunday.

No Public Transit

The city buses did not run at all on Monday and were on a delay Tuesday. That means people who depended on public transportation to get to work or to appointments needed alternate methods. ACCESS transportation for the disabled and elderly citizens was also not running or delayed. For some people, that means missing a doctor’s appointment or dialysis treatment.

Mail Service

USPS did not post their operating hours, but those waiting for a check or paying a bill by mail may have had to wait a few extra days. I love getting mail, and I use Informed Delivery to see what’s coming each day. I didn’t get any mail until Thursday, despite Informed Delivery’s messages. Fortunately, many service providers take online payments, and most banks have an app to cash checks. Unfortunately, low income people are least likely to have checking accounts, depending on check cashing services to get their money.

When residents of Gastonia run into lack of resources, we depend on our informal networks of friends and family for help. For me growing up, snow days meant staying with my aunts or grandmother, and my dad was always willing to drive his truck to bring by food. Highland residents are blessed to have strong community connections that bring people together in times of need.

It’s almost Christmas, and I invite you to give a gift to support my work documenting the history and lives of Highland residents. I’ve been blogging for a year now and I’ve barely cracked the surface of what it means to live in our community. You can support me by going to patreon.com/highlandrising. Thanks!

Take the Mask Off

When I was young, I read an autobiography called Nobody Nowhere. I was young and consuming books at a phenomenal rate, but this story stuck with me. Unfortunately, I misremembered it for twenty years. I thought the author had schizophrenia. Her experiences resonated with me, but I didn’t want to be crazy. In fact, in order to avoid being called crazy, I developed a mask.

Masking is what people do to pretend to be normal. With my mask, I made eye contact. I nodded at the appropriate times and always appeared to be listening. I pretended to care about the weather and how someone’s weekend went. I didn’t mention when I was cold or really bothered by the noise. I tried to convince my bosses that they were smarter than me and knew what they were doing. I did very well with a mask for a while.

My mask got its first big crack when I was fired four years ago. My firing was the beginning of a year that ended with me leaving my husband and moving into my dad’s house. I stopped doing small talk. I sought out relationships that met my needs. I dressed down and only showered when I cared to. I adapted my parenting style so my daughter didn’t have to mask either.

My family’s reaction was interesting. On the one hand, they had always known that my sister and I were different. A lot of people in our family were “special.” On the other hand, they worried about my success. Why did I have to be so rude and so messy? Couldn’t I go back to the overachieving woman who overloaded her credit hours and participated in multiple organizations? The truth is, I was tired.

As I mentioned before, I first went to a therapist when I diagnosed myself with social anxiety. My last year of college, I cried on a plane flight from Memphis to Charlotte. I spent a night driving through Columbia because my apartment was too loud. I went to the emergency room every time I had chest pain. I graduated with two degrees with honors, but, inside, I was a mess. I struggled with depression and anxiety for the next few years while I moved houses, worked several jobs, got married, and had a child. Masks help, but only so much.

The author of Nobody Nowhere had autism, but I did not remember that until I read it again last year. I had rediscovered autism when I was researching my daughter’s Sensory Processing Disorder. We had just finished a disastrous semester of pre-K, and I was finally realizing that her reactions to her environment were not normal. My research led me to believe that she had autism, though was another year before she was diagnosed. All of the symptoms felt familiar to me–in fact, they felt normal. So now I’ve become one of the self-diagnosed adults who is willing to say: I am autistic. And once I accepted that, the mask came off completely.

I still experience anxiety in certain situations. I’m still considered rude by some people, and my friends just accept that I like being blunt. But my movement through this world is a lot smoother now. I don’t consider myself a disability activist because I have other things to do. But I support everyone who wants to take the mask off. And I hope that telling my story will help others support those who do.

Update: in October 2018 I was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

How Much Space Do You Need?

My current home is 1600 sq ft, and my daughter and I consider that plenty of space. This house is owned by my dad and is in the Pinehurst area of Highland. My dad still lives in our childhood home off North York St. That house was 2000 sq ft. The brick home with 1.5 stories had plenty of space for the four of us, and then the five of us when my parents took in my god-brother. My sister and I had a bedroom and a playroom, a living room and a den, a kitchen and an enclosed back porch. My brother lived upstairs and had his own bathroom.

 

20180703_134313.jpg

Home

At one point my late aunt and her children moved in. They took the other bedroom upstairs. It was still plenty of space, but eventually my cousins and aunt moved out. Then my mom moved upstairs. When my parents were fighting, the house didn’t seem big enough. I missed our house when we left it. My mom moved my sister and I to a series of small houses and apartments, and I never quite understood the reasoning behind each move.

 

385112_10100421439538707_1395070397_n

I missed this house when I left it.

As an adult, I rented the bottom floor of a house in Indiana before buying a 1300 sq ft house with my fiance. The wooden home with 1.5 stories had plenty of space for the two of us, and then the three of us when our baby was born. The house didn’t seem big enough when we were fighting. We moved, at my urging, to a series of apartments and small houses, including my mother in law’s. I didn’t realize I was trying to escape the fundamental flaw that was our relationship. When I moved back to Gastonia, into this house with just me and my daughter, it felt like plenty of space.

15776752_10104765718548747_5349747307521718130_o

I think I understand why my dad hasn’t moved.

Flight

The first time I flew in an airplane was exhilarating. It was five months after September 11, 2001, and I flew to Washington, DC as an eleventh grader. Alone.

My social studies teacher had nominated me for a program called Presidential Classroom that brought students from around the country to learn about technology policy and how government works. I was already at Highland School of Technology, on the path to becoming an engineer. I loved The West Wing and I already knew major points of Russian history and some of the language.

20180703_115835

Yes, it’s photos of photos. Welcome to 2002. This is the Pentagon.

 

The routine at TSA checkpoints is familiar now, but back then the Charlotte airport was still adjusting to the changes. We didn’t have to take off our shoes. I didn’t carry a laptop, and it would be four years before the 3-1-1 liquids rule was enforced. My mom walked me to the gate with her characteristic mix of anxiety and concern for my safety.

Our Congresspeople at the time were Sue Myrick and Senators Jesse Helms and John Edwards. Helms was on the way out. His aides answered more policy questions than he did, but he did take us on the underground shuttle to watch him vote. John Edwards had yet to run for Vice President or cheat on his wife, and all I got to see of him was the top of his head before he rushed off to vote. Sue Myrick was very kind and even knew about Highland.

 

20180703_115720

Before we knew he was a terrible person.

I had always loved vehicles, so I knew a lot about airplanes. I was excited to peek into the cockpit. I asked the flight attendance the plane’s takeoff speed, and I was able to calculate how long many seconds before the plane’s wheels left the ground (approximately 7). My face was literally pressed to the window as I lifted into space for the first time. I loved flying through clouds.

20180703_115941.jpg

 

We visited all the standard monuments in DC, as well as a few “backstage” buildings like the NSA and National Institute of Science. One of the most striking places for me was the FDR memorial. One of the walls has a quote about four freedoms. Even then I knew freedom in America wasn’t guaranteed to everyone.

20180703_115436

Speech. Worship. Want. Fear.

 

Everything about flight, including the snacks, was novel to me. Peanuts and soda in a tiny cup! A paper ticket that had the flight’s beginning and end times! I kept checking my watch (no phone back then) and wondering what state we were flying over. I actually read the flight safety information and Sky Mall cover to cover.

The students who joined me were less naive than I was. My roommate talked about getting a full scholarship to Carnegie Mellon. I had been accepted to Carnegie Mellon and Duke, but on campus tours I thought the students were snobby, much like the people I met that week. I also remember the students from Puerto Rico were told not to talk about nuclear testing on the island. They were the first students I had ever heard talking about activism. We passed by the woman who had set up camp outside the White House. She gave up her life and material well-being for a cause. It was a lot different than going to Carnegie Mellon.

20180703_120022

We had to wear business dress everywhere.

 

I loved watching the wings as the plane descended, amazed at the mechanics that dragged the plane down. I listened to the whine as the wheels came out, and I braced for the bump when we landed. The program staff met us at baggage claim, but I had more fun watching the bags go round and round, waiting for their owners.

I don’t remember any of the policy the program tried to introduce us to that week. I remember some of the people we met were important, and some of them probably still serve in government. The next time I would go to Washington, DC would be to see Barack Obama inaugurated. By then, I had Russian and engineering degrees from the University of South Carolina. I had voted in several elections. I had strong opinions about policy.

I still loved flying.

 

20180703_120240

Bill Cosby at the Park

((Content warning for sexual abuse.))

I went to the park with my daughter recently. She has started dressing herself, a skill she has struggled with as an autistic child. This day she was wearing a t-shirt and one of her skirts. At the park she played as kids do, but when she bent over the skirt was too short. It wasn’t a problem for me, but it was for a black family that walked by. They loudly voiced that her “ass was hanging out.” Then one said, “Some kids are going to end up in the back of a truck. Especially that one.”

There are several problems with black people.

I’ve stated before that my neurodivergence makes me less concerned about physical appearance. That extends to my daughter, who is quite photogenic but does not like her hair and face touched. Society devalues people when their appearance is out of the norm, which is why I do take minimal efforts to dress up when necessary. I don’t believe that effort should extend to a day at the park with my daughter. She’s there to get dirty, not look pretty.

Second, girls are over sexualized from a very young age. We are uncomfortable thinking about men abusing children, but we’re perfectly fine with a child wearing makeup for a pageant or ballet performance. T-shirts say “Glam” and “I feel pretty” on them. Preteens regularly wear leggings and tight jeans. You can’t find knee length shorts in the girls section. Despite the popular styles, girls’ bodies are policed in schools. My high school threatened to put scrubs on any girl dressed too provocatively.

But we know assault happens no matter what a girl wears. 90% of sexual abusers are known to the child they abuse. That means at least one adult in their life also knew the abuser and had the chance to intervene. Instead of trusting their instincts, parents worry more about kidnappers lurking at the park. Black people in particular are willing to excuse bad behavior and look the other way (see R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and now Bill Cosby). If any child ends up in the “back of a truck,” it is partially the fault of a culture that chooses to look the other way when respected community members behave badly.

I believe women. I don’t throw stones from glass houses. I will not make my daughter feel bad for dressing how she likes because someone may take it the wrong way. That’s your problem, black people. Not mine.

Failure

I never made an F in school. I was a good student, motivated by the joy of learning and the approval of my teachers. Standardized testing came easy to me. As a black and white thinker, there was always a right answer and a wrong answer.

Failure came in other ways. I started two organizations in college. One never got off the ground. The other fizzled once I left the leadership. I struggled in the work world, especially at hands-on work (as much as I loved doing it) and being a team player. I became a failure at work in February 2014, when I got fired. I moved back to North Carolina, and, five months later, I left my husband. My marriage was now a failure.

This past year I’ve been organizing an event for New Culture Charlotte, a group I founded based on the ideas from Center for New Culture. My group has always been small, but people seemed to enjoy the events. They were willing to show up, until they weren’t. I cancelled our biggest event two weeks ago, and I felt like a failure.

A recent article talked about how minority kids who buy into the American idea that “you can achieve anything you want,” have lower self esteem as they reach middle school. As they become more aware of the outside world, they see people like them in jail, homeless, and in low wage jobs. They see adults who seem to have failed. The reality is that systemic oppression through housing segregation, economic forces, and straight up racism have prevented minorities from achieving the American dream. However, the people (minority or not) who buy into this narrative are themselves a minority.

Programs designed to “empower” black youth focus on job skills, dressing right, speaking Standard English, and showing respect. Thirty years of empowerment programs have shown that many black people can pretend to be like the majority. When they do, they are not failures. But sometimes their children are. The graph below shows how “fair” the American system is for black boys, no matter what class they grow up in.

I embrace being a failure. I’m a low income black woman with a daughter on disability. I am frequently broke. I get chided by my mother for dressing down and not combing my hair. I have a particular anxiety about returning phone calls. I have very strong ideas and no filter when I speak. I will never be one of BET’s famous black people (though I have been on BET.com). My relationships with people come and go, and the organizations I run draw people in or sputter completely. My most recent setback was particularly painful, but it wasn’t discouraging. If anything, it told me I needed to focus my energy on my other passions.

In my recurring dream, I fear that my dad is disappointed in me because I’m a failure. He is a black and white thinker like me. My life is full of gray, and my subconscious is confused. When will I meet the American definition of success? Wihen I get a job (after I was fired from one)? When I buy my own house (the first was foreclosed on)? When I open my business (yet to make a profit)? When I write this book? Or can I just be who I am, taking care of myself and my daughter with the support of my family and friends? I think the more we stop thinking of people as failures, the easier it is to see the forces that have brought us to where we are.

Growth

When I was in middle school, I had a black spot on the inside of my left thumb. Over time it grew bigger, and I tried to get it out. I used Band-Aids, creams, knives, tweezers. I eliminated the black spot only for it to grow back into nasty lumps. I thought I was going to die. More amateur surgery followed. I obsessed about it for months, maybe years, until I finally had a hole a few centimeters deep in my thumb. When the skin grew back, the spot didn’t. I can look at my thumb today and still feel the anxiety that came with seeing the spot every day and not knowing how to fix it.

Now I think my obsession with the spot was a need for control in my life. There was a lot I couldn’t control as a teenager in Highland. Where I went to school, who bullied me, whether the light bill got paid, whether my mom got sick. My memories of middle school are filled with disappointment and pain. We have a video of a birthday party with some of our best friends running. One friend couldn’t come because her parents didn’t want her going to the ghetto.

Escaping the pain of that time meant filling my head with stories, teaching myself Russian, researching the Apocalypse, and messing with that spot. My internal world was rich and happy to help get rid of my everyday anxiety. My sister took a different route. She got angry and yelled. She hit me sometimes. We both felt like we were missing something, and we didn’t have the words to express it. Was life supposed to be this way?

Looking back, I realize I lived in a family full of dysfunction that was doing everything they could to raise us well. They passed on their anxiety and depression as well as their commitment to community and family. If I changed anything, would I be the person I am today? We paid a price for growth.

Run, Hide, Fight

One day, I was a student at Highland School of Technology when the assistant principal came over the intercom and announced, “Mr. Green is in the building.” Teachers locked their doors from the inside, but otherwise we continued class. Later we found out a mentally unstable man had been on the school grounds with a knife.

14 years later, I was a substitute teacher at the same school telling my class to hide under the tables during a lockdown drill. The guidance counselor came by and reminded me that there are windows in the second door to the manufacturing lab–we would have been seen by a real shooter.

Active shooter drills are as common as fire drills and tornado drills now. Gaston County Schools include emergency plans for every school–including evacuating several blocks from the building. As a new employee for the school system, I was shown a terrifying video explaining my options in case a shooter entered the building: Run, Hide, Fight. If we couldn’t evacuate, hide in the classrooms. All classrooms have plastic sheets to cover the windows inside the door facing the hallway. The video showed me how to barricade the door with a desk. If hiding failed, I had to find a blunt object to fight for my life and those of my students.

The two black spots are velcro for the plastic cover.

Once covered, a shooter can’t see inside the classroom.

The Columbine shooting happened when I was in middle school. At the time, we made fun of the trenchcoat mafia and figured that would never happen here. We had to go to an assembly where the author of She Said Yes tried to sell her books with a false story about her daughter. Rachel’s Challenge, named for another Columbine victim, is a yearly assembly to encourage kids to be nice to each other. The kids in those assemblies today were not even alive when Rachel died.

I can’t help but feel a certain hopelessness about school shootings. What was once a major tragedy is now the subject of regular news, crime show episodes, and video games (yes, there is one about Columbine). As far as I know, there hasn’t been a school shooting in the county. High schoolers are more likely to die in car wrecks or by suicide. But the drills continue, as if administrators are resigned to the fact that one day it will be us.

Do You Even Lyft?

I visited Denver, CO to give a talk a few weeks ago. Since Denver is a large metropolitan area, the conference organizers suggested using Uber or Lyft to go around. I have used Uber once before, but for this trip I decided to use Lyft. Overall it was cheaper and it doesn’t have the same public relations issues Uber has been having. While riding, I couldn’t help but think of my home community and how Highland residents have been getting around for years.

Les Lightner was an entrepreneur in the middle of the century who owned several businesses in Highland, one of which was a taxi service. I remember my grandmother taking taxis across town because she never learned how to drive. As recently as last week, I saw a resident taking a taxi to the Family Dollar. 

Besidespublic transportation and friends, taxis are the most common form of transportation for Highland residents who don’t own a car or can’t drive. (Many felons, especially those convicted of DUIs, are unable to get a license.) You can imagine how the cost of taxi rides can add up over time. Unfortunately, buying a car usually involves having good credit, which I’ve discussed is less common for people in low income communities.

The idea of Lyft (and the entire gig economy) is that people can depend on their neighbors to help them get around. However, prejudice affects Lyft drivers the same way it affects real estate agents. Black residents are more likely to wait longer for a ride and to have rides cancelled on them. When I took Lyft in Denver, I was staying in a majority Latino neighborhood that was close to downtown, and I did experience a longer wait time that when I was downtown in the hipster areas. Almost all the drivers were people of color (but not black). 

All of the cars were newer models and squeaky clean. I couldn’t be a Lyft driver with my 2002 Accord and a daughter who throws her chicken nugget box on the back seat. Lyft drivers must pass a background check and a DMV check. Considering that black drivers are disproportionally pulled over by police and convicted of minor crimes more often in Gaston County, that alone potentially eliminates a majority of Highland residents from being drivers.

When I got back to Gastonia, I pulled up Lyft on my phone. There were several drivers in the city, and a wait time of 3-8 minutes did not seem unreasonable, and a drive across town would cost about $10. This brings up the last problem with Lyft and low income customers. Lyft requires a debit card, credit card, or Paypal. They do appear to take prepaid cards. I’ve already chronicled my issues with bank account balances and the cash economy. In fact, on my last day of the conference, I had enough cash to take a taxi to the airport but not enough on my card to take a Lyft. And that doesn’t consider people who do not own a smart phone, which is about ⅓ of American adults.

Apps like Lyft are usually developed in Silicon Valley by white, middle class developers. It’s not impossible to develop new technologies that help everyone, but most modern technologists lack the perspective of low income and minority populations. After all, poor people aren’t going to be your start-up investors. Even humanitarian actions like Mark Zuckerberg funding public schools end up missing the mark, because most Silicon Valley types have not spent time with the poor.

Admit it, you don’t even know what poor people need unless you’ve been poor. Sympathy pieces and blogs like these give a slice of life, but they rarely spur effective changes in policies. America still sees the poverty as a character flaw, so the poor are thought of as undeserving of cash, quality schools, and even basic medical care. At the same time we ask them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they can’t even try Lyft.