A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 21st, 2015.
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Over the past year we’ve seen an increase in articles by Jews that seek to disprove the concept of privilege due to experiences of anti-Semitism. These writings upset me because they in no way represent my own beliefs as a white, female, Ashkenazi educator and activist. The articles do not acknowledge the complexity of identity that I believe is necessary for the Jewish community to embrace. Here is my response to a compilation of articles:

Dear Taffy, James, John, Seth & Tal

You have all joined the deluge of Jews venting frustration with the concept of “privilege.” I admit my temptation to pick apart your arguments line by line. The number of offensive statements makes my heart race.

But for the time being, what I’ll say is:

You’re right.

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

And this is a problem.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.

And also: you’re wrong.

Experiencing anti-Semitism does not preclude other truths: white privilege (for Jews who are also white), class privilege (for Jews who also have wealth), male privilege, able-bodied privilege, straight and cis-gender privilege. None of these experiences of oppression trumps any other; all oppression is painful and unjust.

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.

But sometimes breaking it down feels complex and painful. Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?

In my work with Ma’yan’s Research Training Internship, a big theme we teach isintersectionality: the concept that one person can experience both oppression and privilege simultaneously. It’s complex. But it’s important.

“Privilege” is a word that sometimes scares people. But it doesn’t have to. Privilege doesn’t mean I’m bad or that my people are bad. It also doesn’t mean I’m extra good. One definition we use at Ma’yan is that privilege is a system of unearned advantages that benefits one group at the expense of others. I have to remember this or else I fall into the trap of believing I have “earned” things because I am somehow “better than” others. But that’s a lie that only further isolates me, and leads me to remain complicit in oppression.

I don’t frame this conversation as “Jewish privilege” because Jewish identity is multi-faceted and complex. When working with white Jews, I talk about the white privilege that we experience as Jews. It’s a subtle but important difference. The experience of being Jewish includes oppression—past and present. And even still some Jews have certain privileges.

It’s particularly scary for Jews to think about the idea of holding privilege because of the history of anti-Semitic tropes that say that Jews control the world and therefore their takedown is justified. But I’m not saying Jews are the most privileged.  Actually, we know that the majority of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the U.S are white Christian men. But that doesn’t mean that white Jews don’t still experience privilege. I know I do. Even at the same time as anti-Semitism.

When as Jews we don’t understand intersectionality, it’s a problem for everyone. Not understanding intersectionality means white Jews are more likely to assume a uniform Jewish experience, which keeps us from appreciating the richness of our diversity and perpetuates racism not only to non-Jews but also to Jews of color within our community (not to mention classism, homophobia, ableism and more). Not understanding intersectionality also leads us to believe the myth of exceptionalism: seeing ourselves as the most oppressed, which only serves to further isolate us from the people and movements we could actually be working with. Anti-Semitism is not our fault and it is not our (sole) responsibility to end. But by staying in our narrative of victimhood, we essentially leave ourselves alone and stuck, and we damage other communities along with our own.(For a fuller list of why Jews MUST understand privilege and intersectionality, click here).

“When my Jewishness comes into conflict with my whiteness, I’m not effective in challenging racism,” said educator Randy Clancy in a recent workshop for a group of social justice educators that Ma’yan convenes. We have to embrace all parts of our identity to do the work.

Talking about privilege is just a start. The point isn’t just to recognize it, but to understand our place in fighting for racial justice and ending oppression for all people.

The left also has some responsibility. If lefties don’t understand that anti-Semitism is real, it leaves Jews feeling like they have to prove it over and over again, as we have seen in the articles I linked in the salutation. And wouldn’t it be nice if the right-wing didn’t have a monopoly on defining anti-Semitism for once?

So: Anti-Semitism is real. White privilege is real. Racism is real. These things are linked, but they are not all the same and cannot be compared. Sometimes it makes sense to focus on one while not abandoning the other, and at this moment in U.S history, I see way too many murders of black people to stand idly by. When I say Black Lives Matter, this in no way negates my commitment to ending anti-Semitism. It is not about oppression hierarchies, though we do need to examine the fact that this country was economically built on racism. Ultimately, I believe our liberation is connected. So let’s get to work.

With love,

Talia

P.S. There are lots of great resources put out by leftist people and communities. April Rosenblum wrote a great pamphlet about anti-Semitism and the left. Ngoc Loan TranAsam Ahmad, and others have written beautifully about ending in-fighting among the left.Paul Kivel has also written about being both white and Jewish and showing up in the fight for racial justice. There’s a lot of good thinking out there. Let’s stay in it together.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.

Tips for Responding to Offensive Comments

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on March 23rd, 2015

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Last week we posted your responses to how you handle offensive comments at parties and family gatherings. This week we’re letting you in on a few of our tricks.

Before even figuring out how to respond, you first have to determine if to respond. When deciding, here are some things to consider:

1)   Who the speaker is and your relationship to them 

Some people find it easier to engage when the offender is a close friend or family member, someone with whom they experience unconditional love. Others fear damaging the relationship most important to them over something seemingly small. But you know your relationships best and can figure out what everyone can handle.

2)   Who else is around to hear it 

We got feedback from our readers that it really matters who else is around. And we agree! If two women start fat-shaming each other in front of younger girls, standing up against internalized sexism sets an important model for the next generation.

3)    How you’re doing/feeling in that moment 

“I prefer to respond when I can be chill about it,” replied one of our readers.

Trying to explain how the history of colonialism continues to play out today might be more difficult after the longest week ever. You are the best judge of whether or not it’s time to engage.

4)   Knowledge of subject matter 

Readers reported preferring to have enough information. Don’t feel like it’s a subject you can take on? Check out our resource guide for more 411 on all sorts of topics. Also, if you’re having a gut instinct that something is wrong, you can always share your opinion and follow up with more information later.

5)   Personal relationship to subject matter 

Did someone just say something that directly insults you, your relatives or partner? Depending on how painful the subject is for you personally, your response in that moment may need to be more about self-preservation than education.

Did you decide to go ahead and engage? Here are some strategies you can try out:

1)   Humor 

It doesn’t always have to be serious. Try combatting racist jokes with jokes about racism itself. Or say “I always love comedians who actually expose racism instead of just perpetuating it.”  

2)   Pretending you don’t understand/Asking questions 

My friend Julie has a favorite example: a male acquaintance referred to another woman as a JAP. Fully aware of the meaning of the slang Julie asked, “What’s a JAP?” “You know, a Jewish American Princess,” he said. “Did she live in castle?!” Julie asked with joy on her face, effectively employing both strategies number 1 and 2, and forcing the man to reconsider his language.

This strategy can also be used more seriously if humor doesn’t feel appropriate. When people say “I prefer not to walk in that kind of neighborhood,” asking questions about what they mean can lead to the underlying classism and racism ingrained in those statements and can produce a genuine conversation.

3)   Storytelling/I-Statements 

Often most successful in producing empathy is just telling a personal story. “I don’t like when people say negative things about women’s bodies. My mom used to do that when I was a kid and it made me feel bad about myself. I’m now learning to heal from that and part of my healing is trying not to engage in negative talk about other women.”

4)   Flagging for later 

Sometimes you can keep it simple if you don’t have the energy, time, or necessary information. For example: “We don’t have to get into it now because I know we have a meeting agenda, but I want to come back to this assumption that only rich people donate to charity. I’m pretty sure I’ve read some countering statistics that we don’t have time for. But I’ll be sure to look and send them out with the notes.”

5)   Straight talk 

The scariest for some, the easiest for others. (Bear in mind: humans are strong and capable and can heal from anything.) It would be okay to say, “Hey, when you talk about the Muslim people like that it feels bad. There are over 1 billion Muslim people in the world, the vast majority of whom preach peace and love. As a Jew I know what it’s like to have my people hated and I’m just not down with perpetuating that for another religion. What’s your feeling on that?” And then engage.

What’s the worst that can happen? (And if the answer is: something truly awful can happen, see #6).

6)   Self-preservation/Boundary Setting 

As I said earlier, sometimes the topic might be too painful for you to even be around. You can say you will need to leave if the conversation continues like this. You can actually get up and leave.  Another reader provided a few short phrases she uses: “ouch,” “too far for me,” “can’t hang out with those thoughts.” If you’re up for it, you can also try, “When comments like that are made it triggers these feelings inside me. It may not be your intention for me to feel this way, but I want you to know how I feel in response.”  You get to take care of yourself, and you know how to do that best.

7)   Diffusing 

Having trouble thinking of a response? Feeling stuck? There are still strategies for you! Readers provided responses including “Ok! Moving on!” and the “specifically vague” phrase: “Well, now, that’s a thought!” (which is reported to lead to a subject change). One reader said, “Sometimes I feel that just gently not participating in the conversation or giving any response is enough to register that I’m not agreeing or colluding.” Others reported using body language to show lack of interest in continuing the conversation. Other phrases to try: “That statement doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t feel like getting into a debate about it now, but maybe we could just move on?” “I’m pretty sure that’s inaccurate, but I will look up more info about it and send it to you later!” “I think this conversation is better continued just the two of us at another time.”

Hard stuff, right? The good news is that we don’t have to be perfectionists about it. Maybe we’ll come up with a great response, maybe we won’t. Maybe someone will appreciate what we say and maybe not. What matters is that you made the assessment, you tried something (because even not responding is trying something) and then you will learn from the result.  If it’s not the result you wanted, oh well! The good (er bad?) news is that you will have plenty more opportunities to try again. Additionally, it sometimes feels like the very moment it happens is the only opportunity to respond.  While It is often is easier in the moment, it’s not your last shot. “Remember yesterday when you said that thing? It actually upset me because…” is also valid.

This stuff is also really cultural. People from different class, race and ethnic backgrounds might have different ways of handling tricky moments.  Our way is not the only way, and ideally we all get to learn from each other.

I think the best advice we can offer is just to notice. Does your heart race? Do you sweat? Do you get really angry? Do you repeatedly choose not to engage? How do people generally respond to what you say? Try to notice without judgment and keep track of patterns. How come I usually feel tongue tied? What am I most scared of? Start collecting information. The more information you have, the more likely you can make rational decisions in the future (hm, I notice that Im having that body sweat thing again. I remember that that means Im scared. But there is no real threat here. Okay! I think I can respond!). Be gentle with yourself and keep at it. And if you yourself said something offensive, you can be gentle on yourself too and learn about it for next time.

There’s also something in all this for you: every time you speak up, you get to have the experience of seeing yourself as someone who acts on the things you believe in. This is not for self-kudos, but for the experience of inner-alignment. And the more you practice, the more you build the muscle.

By the way, if you are an educator, we lead a workshop on this stuff! It’s called “Evaded Issues” and was originally developed by Naomi Less and Shira Epstein. The workshop is designed to help educators with strategies to engage when tough topics unexpectedly arise in educational settings. Let us know if you’d like to schedule a workshop for your school or organization!

Written by Ma’yan staff: Talia Cooper, Shayna Goodman, Andrea Jacobs

I Never Dreamed of a White Christmas: On Gilmore Girls and Christian hegemony

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on December 16th, 2014
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On October 25th I heard my first Christmas song of the season. I’m not exaggerating. A week later, said song weaseled its way deeper into my brain, nested, and made only brief escapes out the hum on my lips. Damn.  Christmas.

Recently I’ve been bit by the Gilmore Girls bug. Yes, it’s true, I hopped straight on that Netflix binge-watching bandwagon of the TV show featuring the fast-sass-talking, big-eating, small-town-living ways of Lorelai and Rory. As a pop culture-loving feminist, I note things like the racist portrayal of Mrs. Kim and how the fat person is characterized as clumsy, and file them in my brain under “TV references of racism/sizeism I could use in a workshop one day.”

Here at Ma’yan we’ve been reading Penny Rosenwasser and Paul Kivel. We are learning about anti-Semitism and also Christian hegemony—the system that normalizes the Christian experience, and marginalizes all other religions. Just a few light topics that were on my mind as I watched the Gilmore Girls. The portrayal of Jews in the show is certainly cringe-worthy; there’s Brad (a minor character), the dorky, unlovable schoolmate, and then there’s Paris, the hypertensive, hyper-competitive, hyper-allergic, power-grabbing rival of Rory. Yikes. That’s some serious brain-file material. But for me, the real ick moment occurred in Season 3.

In Season 3 (episode 10), Paris’ boyfriend invites her to celebrate Christmas. When she returns, Rory asks about it. Paris gets this dreamy look as she relays the scene: wreaths everywhere, a 12 foot tree, the wafting smell of cinnamon, the eggnog, the cider, “It wasn’t just nice,” she says, “It was perfect.” She explains to Rory: “I never had a Christmas tree before. One year I asked my mom if we could get a Chanukah bush, and she made me watch Shoah the rest of the week.” She then continues: “I’m looking at this mound of gifts and I’m thinking, eight days of Chanukah? Who’s the skinflint that thought of that deal?” “Don’t the eight days symbolize something?” Rory asks. “Yes, they symbolize eight days of ripping off the little kids who can’t have a Chanukah bush,” Paris retorts. “You’re making me sad,” Rory says. The scene ends with Paris declaring her commitment to return for Easter.

Watching this dialogue unfold I felt queasy, and I realized: that’s it. That is exactly my fear: that Christmas celebrators everywhere walk around feeling sorry for Jews and all those who miss out on the quintessential American experience, and that if we are lucky enough to get to celebrate Christmas, we’ll feel whole, restored, and at last accepted.

Like Paris, I too have been welcomed into a Christmas celebration by someone I was dating. The meal was fun, and I enjoyed it like I do any holiday dinner with family. Adorning the tree was sweet, rather like decorating a Sukkah. The presents felt overwhelming. The fireplace was lovely. Stuffing stockings was awesome. I did not feel wistful or deprived for never having gotten this before. I have never secretly longed for tinsel and candy canes, for jingle bells and reindeers. Jews every year talk about how annoying it is that people say ‘Merry Christmas,’ or even ‘Happy Holidays’ (because we know what that actually means). But that’s not my real beef here. For me, the issue is that Christians think I want it. I have never felt short-changed in my dearth of Christmas celebrations. As a woman I don’t have penis-envy, and as a Jew I sure as hell (pun intended) don’t have cross-envy.

This is what Christian hegemony does—it normalizes the lives of Christians, and it makes it seem like the experience everyone has, or should have, or at the very least should want. And some do. But not all of us.

I should clarify: I am not the Semitic Lorax. I do not speak for the Jews. There are plenty of Jews who have longed for Christmas, who love Christmas songs and decorating ginger bread houses. There is truly nothing wrong with that. Not to mention the many multi-faith households that embrace multiple traditions as their own. I’m all for it. But multi-faith households that include Christians are not adding tradition where there was none before, but rather layering on to an already beautiful tapestry. For me, learning new traditions doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been missing out all along.

So here’s my message to Christians: just because this holiday is the federally recognized one, the one associated with the religion that fuels so many of the thoughts, opinions and attitudes in this country, does NOT make it the holiday we all inwardly wish we were celebrating. But I do wish you the very best, and I’ll gladly partake in a little eggnog and cookies (if you’re offering, that is).

An Alternative Al Chet/Confession List*–For Parents and Educators of Jewish Girls

This piece was originally published on the Ma’yan blog on September 29th, 2014
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A new year is coming: a time to reflect, refresh, renew. We have raised our children as best we could, given them the tools they need to grow strong and thriving, shown them love as only we know how. Yet we too have missed the mark.

We have missed the mark by exercising power

We have been jealous, incredulous or doubtful of young peoples’ power

We have pushed youth to take on more more more

We have left youth alone too much

We have missed the mark through our inner thoughts

We have told young people to love their bodies while silently poking and prodding at our own flaws in the mirror

We have idealized the beauty of youth

We have experienced feeling unheard, unnoticed, misunderstood, and perpetuated this feeling onto the next generation

We have missed the mark through harsh speech and hard-heartedness

We have made scoffing remarks about “kids these days”

We have told young people they’ll understand when they’re older, to do something because we said so, or to wait until they’re in the real world

We have been too terrified to ask young people about the things we know are on their minds: bodies, sex, sexuality, social life, money…

We have made decisions about how young people should spend their time, without their consultation

 

We have missed the mark without thinking

We have neglected to model the possibility of living life to its fullest vibrancy, at every stage, at every age

We have not involved enough men in the rearing of children

We have not modeled relaxation and self-care

We have missed the mark by degrading parents and teachers

We have forgotten to see our relationships with young people as a two-way street, with infinite potential

We have missed the mark by denial and false promises

We have passively watched the media parade pictures of photoshopped women, flaunt princess narratives and promise better lives with more purchases, without rising up and fighting back

We have pushed our own hopes and agendas onto the next generation

We have been uninvolved in the fights against racism, climate change, homophobia and other important issues, with the hope that the next generation would take care of it

We have missed the mark by arrogance

We have cared more about being liked and cool than being a real ally to young people

We have allowed logistics, schedules and to do lists to get in the way of genuine connection time with the young folks in our lives

We have missed the mark by confusion of the heart

We have neglected to reflect on our own inner-child, to offer her the same nurturing we provide to the young people in our lives

We have been hard on ourselves, we have not forgiven ourselves for the mistakes we have made, we have not reminded ourselves that we too deserves compassion

For all of these things and more, help us find the strength to forgive and keep going. Help us remember that we are not alone in this loving, necessary, difficult and communal work of raising up the next generation.

*A traditional Al Chet/Confession List is read communally during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur

Talia Cooper is Ma’yan‘s Program Director.  Contact talia@mayan.org

No Lotions, Potions, Diets or Pills: Here’s One Tip on Aging You Won’t Wanna Miss!

This piece was originally published on the Ma’yan blog

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Talia Cooper explains how combating ageism can be a remedy to our fear of aging and obsession with youth: “We say age is power, but only to a certain point. We have young people trying to look old and old people trying to look young. Where does this leave us?”

Part I: 28 and ¾ Years-Old

My dad likes to wax nostalgic about a story I wrote when I was little featuring a “24 and a ½ year old” protagonist. Why is it that as kids we are proud of every month of our lives? At what point does that stop?

Well now I am 28 and ¾ years old. In other words, I’m in my late 20s. In other words, I’m approaching 30.  That’s around the age that people start to think about aging more negatively. After all, turning ten equaled new adventures in double-digit land and 20 was a step closer to 21. But 30? That’s some real stuff. My friends have already started to point out gray hairs, new wrinkles, sagging skin and deep-colored-veins.

As a young girl I would spend time looking in the mirror, pinching the skin next to my eyes in hopes of developing crow’s feet like the ones I saw decorating the faces of my mother and her friends. To me, these lines were like magical rivulets, or like flowers bursting from a trumpet vine. I tried to explain this to adults but their laughter taught me that wrinkles were not okay and were not to be wished for.

So now, like many my age, I’ve started to feel a little nervous. How much longer do I have in my youth? If I obsessively go to the gym or drink lots of water or eat chia seeds or use oxygen cream on my face, can I extend my youthfulness?

And then it hit me. There is only one, soundproof, fail-safe, air-tight way of combating this aging process. But we’ll get to that later.

Part II: I Won’t Grow Up!!

Why are we all so obsessed with not getting older? It is documented that older men and women have increasing difficulty finding jobs. A friend of mine, who’s in her 60s, told me she would gladly leave her hair its natural white color, but she gets significantly more professional clients when she dyes it brown. The media loves to demonize pop stars for the “work” they get done. But when an increase in age leads to a decrease in job opportunities—can we blame them? Ageism is real and pervasive. And when you mix ageism with racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and/or other such goodies, you get quite a stew. No wonder this aging thing gets a little scary. Then again, being too young is no good either.

As an educator and youth organizer I’ve spent years learning and teaching about adultism: the way society treats young people like they are less than full humans. I remember being in high school wondering what life would be like when I finally got to “the real world.” I’m only now understanding that things were just as real back then. We may worship youthfulness, but we sure don’t worship our youth; we deny them the right to vote, we prescribe them pills and curricula without their consent, and we treat them either like scary monsters or shallow beings obsessed only with gossip and social media.

There’s this funny thing about age: if there is in fact a sweet spot (not too old but not too young), it doesn’t seem to last very long. Either you’re young and not real yet, or old and irrelevant. What does this mean that we praise youthfulness but devalue the young? We say age is power, but only to a certain point. We have young people trying to look old and old people trying to look young. Where does this leave us?

Part III: A New Premise

What if we start over, all of us, with a new premise: every person deserves to live and be treated as a full human being. To us at Ma’yan, this is what it means to be a feminist. What could that new premise look like in terms of age?

What if young people were asked what excites them and how that can be incorporated into their broader learning? What if people of all ages were encouraged to experiment with new activities, ideas and creative endeavors?

What if older people were asked for advice and valued for their experience? What if people of all ages made decisions for their future (and the future of the planet) based on the assumption that they have a full, rich life ahead of them?

What if all cities and institutions were up to date with the Americans with Disabilities Act, ensuring equal access? What if respectful and loving care was widely available to the elderly at affordable rates, and the domestic workers who provide it were also treated with dignity? What if people did not automatically assume that older people or people with disabilities required help? What if no one was ashamed to ask for help when they needed it?

What if we always complimented people for their whole beauty as they are now (not how beautiful they will become or how we imagine they once were)?

What if employers appreciated the different contributions of people of all ages? What if older people were not forced into early retirement? What if we worked to end the system based in capitalist notions that humans are valued only according to their productivity?

What if doctors always assumed they can speak directly to their patient, no matter how old or young? What if voting laws became more inclusive? What if young people formed committees to serve as advisors to government?

What if there were more intergenerational friendships and collaborations?

What if we were all proud of having made it exactly where we are?

Part IV: Anti-Ageism Heroes!

I’m aware as I write that readers might pay more attention to a piece on ageism from someone like me, who is approximately still in the ‘sweet spot’ (old enough not to be young, young enough not to be old). Marjorie Dove-Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, encourages us all to be “unlikely allies,” active in causes that might surprise others and make them notice (Gasp! She cares about older people!).But I would be remiss if I didn’t share that there are amazing people out there doing incredible anti-ageism activism, and they want you to know they are old and proud!

Like Ashton Applewhite who blogs about ageism at This Chair Rocks and says:  “I know I’m not young—do not call me ‘young lady’—but I don’t think of myself as old either. I certainly qualify, if oldness is measured by time from birth or defined by my laptop’s dictionary: ‘having lived a long time.’ I prefer ‘older,’ which emphasizes that age is a spectrum. I reject the old/young binary: that imaginary line in the sand after which it’s all supposed to be downhill. The problem lies in equating ‘old’ with diminishment alone. The reality, as experience proves, is far more nuanced and positive.”

Maggie Kuhn, founder of the intergenerational education and advocacy organization called the Gray Panthers, said: “Old age is not a disease–it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.” (She also said “Sex and learning until rigor mortis.”) In her work for justice, Kuhn hoped to have older and younger people connect over the shared experience of ageism.

Part V: The Big Reveal: My One and Only Trick on Aging

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the media frenzy and want to minimize my own aging process. But when I take a moment to breathe, read the thinking of people like Applewhite and Kuhn, I don’t see anything wrong with getting older. After all, each decade of my life has been better than the last, and they’ve all been pretty good. I fully expect this upward trend to continue as I grow and learn.

So I’ve realized that if I, myself don’t want to experience the harsh ageism I see lobbed at older folks daily, I have only one real course of action.  It’s not a special diet or cream. It’s not a surgery. It’s not any product I can buy. You ready? Here is my one and only trick on aging: fight to end ageism.

As Ellen Snortland says:  “At any age, to partake in ageism is to lay the foundation for your own irrelevancy.” I have no intention of doing that.

Part VI: Taking Action

(Pictured above: Talia Cooper and her grandmother Dorothy Gartner)

A few actions we can take to fight ageism:

  • Interrupt ageist and adultist comments when you hear them (such as “I’m having a senior moment” or “all kids bully each other on social media.”)
  • Start treating people of all ages as the full humans they are (this includes yourself).
  • Get support to work on your own feelings/fears about death and disability.
  • Create alternative advertisements and birthday cards that exhibit a joy in the aging process
  • Practice both living in the moment (assuming you are extremely important just as you are RIGHT NOW), and assuming you have a long life ahead of you.
  • Get involved in campaigns to protect the planet for the long haul (such as the work of 350.org).
  • Take action against employers with ageist hiring and firing practices, and support organizations and unions doing this work, like JPAC and NYSARA.
  • Lobby congress to institute stricter policies against ageism in work and housing.
  • Work intergenerationally. Don’t assume anyone is too old or young for responsibility. Don’t put all your hopes and un-accomplished dreams on the next generation.
  • Find safe spaces to vent feelings of hopelessness—do not ask the next generation to hold this.
  • Make art that exhibits pride in your own age.
  • Encourage school systems to listen to students’ voices.
  • If you want to know a kid’s age, start by telling them how old you are (“I’m 52 years old, how about you?”).
  • Stop complimenting people on their youthfulness.
  • Insist that Hollywood hire people to play their own age.
  • Get involved and support organizations who work for the rights of older people to age with dignity and care, such as Caring Across Generations and Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.
  • Check out the youth-made movie Ma’yan’s recent Research Training Interns created resisting oppressive media messages!
  • Ask people of all ages their thoughts and advice on aging.
  • [Insert your creative ideas here.]

When I asked my Grandma Dorothy Gartner (who’s almost 90) her advice on aging she said, “Love the preciousness of yourself, keep that alive.” When I asked my friend Anya Tucker (who’s almost 13) she said, “Take the passing years not as a sign of being closer to death but as a sign of your growing wisdom.” I would like to imagine aging like a tree: sinking my roots in deeper and stretching my branches further than I ever thought they could grow.

Ageism is harsh and pervasive—even more so when mixed with other -isms.  It is difficult to combat the societal messaging. But when I think about it, doesn’t getting older actually mean I have the enormous privilege of living another day?

Talia Cooper is a musician and the Program Director at Ma’yan. She has been working with youth for seven years. She has led workshops for people of all ages on the topic of ageism, and is interested in thinking more about the complexity of intergenerational work. Want to know more? Contact talia@mayan.org. Talia will be 29 in September 2014.

 

Seven Tools for Raising Thriving Kids

This piece was originally published on the Ma’yan blog.

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Talia Cooper outlines seven ways to support kids in having a meaningful and thriving life beyond getting into a “good college.”

So here’s my scoop: 28, female, white, middle class, Jewish, living in Brooklyn with craigslist roommates, no kids, unmarried, serious boyfriend (which means we super dig each other, not that he can’t crack a joke). Sometimes I think about having children.

After attending a lecture by Dr. Lois Weis* on the fanatic drive of middle and owning class parents towards a good college, I started thinking: if I have children, will I too get caught up in this college hysteria?  Dr. Weis explains that this craze is understandable because the college a person attends is a big predictor of future class status. But the big college push is not serving healthy youth development. So are there other kinds of success besides class? If success means having a meaningful and thriving life, what tools can I give my kids to support them, besides continuing education?

1. Sustained Creativity

All kids are excited about art. They draw a picture and show it to their parents. They make up a song and sing it to their doll. They discover they can slap out a beat with their hands or a spoon. They make friendship bracelets, jewelry, robots out of boxes, play dress up, and create entire worlds of make believe. But as we get older, the arts get relegated to mere side projects. I don’t want my kids to lose sight of creative possibility. As adults we should look for any opportunity to encourage young people to pursue artistic passions (without jumping to labeling this a career path, unless they take it there first). Art allows us to get in touch with who we are, what we feel, and can even help develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

2. Self-care


I want my kids to know that their bodies and emotions are important. That when they work really hard on something, it’s good to rest and reflect. That when they get sick, they need to take time to get better. That a balanced life includes not just work or school but also time with friends, with themselves, and with other interests. That if they’re feeling sad, it’s okay to cry and ask for support. With the drive drive drive to college, many middle class young folks are spending all day at school, all afternoon and evening at sports practices and play rehearsals, and then all night on homework with just a few hours of sleep before starting over again. We are not setting our youth up to know how to take care of their own needs. Some of us adults (read: me) are still working to heal from this past habit-forming trauma. Let’s support youth to rest and explain that it’s okay to say no— a “no” to one thing is actually a “yes” to something else. Self-care has the added bonus of helping us to think more rationally in difficult or potential dangerous situations.

3. Deep connections with all kinds of people

As I said, I am white, Jewish, and have class privilege. Same with my boyfriend. If we have kids, they will likely also have this background. When I was little, I didn’t get a lot of support in how to have relationships with people of color and working class folks. Sure, I was given beautiful images of multiculturalism to aspire to, but without any real information, support or modeling, I ultimately gravitated in large part towards friends who felt like me. I want to give my children the opportunity to be in spaces with people from their own constituencies and from all different races, classes, abilities and religious backgrounds. And I want to give them the space to honestly talk about what that’s like for them– what’s cool, what’s hard, what’s weird, what they need help understanding. The goody bag is this can give an extra grounding in their own identity as well.

4. An understanding of oppression, liberation and complexity

I want my kids to understand that society is unfortunately not treating everyone fairly, that there are certain advantages we have been given because of being white, and there are also certain oppressions we might face for being Jewish. It’s scary to imagine telling kids this—I don’t want to set them up with so much negativity! But explaining these concepts is a way of teaching that we can think about the world complexly. And I want them to know about liberation- how a lot of work has been done and that as Jews we can be proud of and continue our heritage of fighting for justice.

5A love of learning

I think one of the saddest losses in our education system is the love of learning. I’ve been working with privileged young folks for seven years. Time and again I hear youth say, “I hate school.” Even with some exceptional (and over-worked) teachers, mostly students are stressed, exhausted, and counting down the days until summer. I recently worked with one young person who had been homeschooled his whole life. There are stereotypes that homeschoolers are socially awkward. Not him. He made great friends and he loved to learn. He constantly sought out cooler and more challenging lessons for himself. He hosted big scientific experiments in his garage and invited all his friends to join in. He attended local lectures, wrote essays, and was always thrilled to share his findings. I’m not saying homeschooling is the answer; I am interested in finding a way to keep my kids’ natural curiosity burning inside of them, to learn for the thrill of it rather than the (college) prize at the end of the rainbow.  I hope to encourage my kids to ask lots of questions and to meet them with zest. I also want to find a way to let them have power over what they learn, whether that’s in an alternative schooling program, or in afterschool activities, or even just directing family outings.

6. Big dreams

When we make college the singular goal for young people, we risk blocking their ability to have other dreams.  Schooling can be an important step in life, but I don’t want college to be the only thing my kids’ entire childhood is focused on.

I remember how when I finally arrived at undergrad, I overheard my roommates talking about needing to get good grades so they could get into a good grad program. All I could think was: “not this again.” I’d just been through four years of that in high school and I refused to do it another time. I want my kids to be able to have all kinds of big dreams. This might include going to college, but it could also mean writing a play, producing a radio show, conducting a science experiment, having a lifelong friendship, putting up an art installation and many other things I can’t imagine. Regularly asking questions encourages dreaming:  ‘What excites you?’ ’ ‘What would you like to spend more time on?’ ‘If in ten years you were doing the most awesome thing you could imagine, what would that be?’ ‘Is there anyone alive or dead who you admire? Why?’ ‘If we had no time or financial constraints, what would you do?’ ‘If it were true that everyone in the world existed for some special reason, what do you think yours might be?’ ‘What makes you feel alive?’ Getting answers (or feasible ones) will be less important than getting these questions circling.

7. And finally, loving imperfections

Last year my boyfriend and I met a young boy whose parents had taught him to say, “Yay! A mistake!” when he messed up. We were thrilled to see the resilience this child already exhibited, and found that the phrase was useful in our own lives too.

The most important way I hope to teach these tools is by modeling: taking serious my own creative endeavors, showing that I know how to rest and care for my body, modeling complexity in my own diverse relationships and in my understanding of the world, and talking energetically about my personal big dreams for music and social change.  And rather than beating myself up for mistakes (both little and big) or working endlessly to make everything perfect, I want to show that I do my best when possible, apologize for my mistakes and oversights, laugh lovingly at my shortcomings, and grow from experiences. I know that no matter how many blogs I read or write, I will never be the perfect parent of perfect children. But with integrity and love I can model doing my best and being pleased with myself for trying.

From all of this, I’m learning that to me, raising and supporting ‘successful’ and thriving kids will mean that they have and can access the above listed tools. Though the college pressures come from outside the home too, the more of us who can emphasize these tools, the more our youth will prioritize them as well (even if they do go to an Ivy League). These tools won’t totally inoculate us against the college stress (there are some structural things that will have to change first!), but they can help give us and our kids a broader perspective on what really matters in life: our humanness, our connections, and our dreams.

What are the tools you want to give your kids or students? Or what do you wish you had been given? What does “success” mean to you? I wrote this from my own perspective- how does this change for families with different backgrounds?

Talia Cooper is Ma’yan’s Program Director. Talia attended the following schools: The Next Best Step Pre-School, Berkwood Hedge Elementary, Longfellow Middle School, Berkeley High School, The Mountain School, and Oberlin College. She is the former Executive Director of Jewish Youth for Community Action. She can also be found playing musicContact her at talia@mayan.org. 

*Dr. Lois Weis is the author of Driving Towards College Admissions: Class Consolidation in New Times. Coming out soon!

Why I’m happy about last week’s U.S vs. Belgium soccer match

No, it’s not because I’m a closeted Belgium fan, or particularly anti-American. Truth be told, I’m not that into soccer, or sports for that matter.

But I do like people.

So on Tuesday I joined my boyfriend, a buddy, and 50 others at a tavern for the last 15 minutes of the game. Belgium had just scored, and then scored again. It was not looking good for the U.S.

Most people in the bar were watching the screens on the west end of the room. The three of us were positioned under those screens so instead watching the TVs on the other side of the bar. This meant I also got to observe everyone’s faces as they stared just above our heads. I watched their eyes moan, light up, wriggle, rise and fall. When the U.S scored a goal, they erupted with more joy than I can remember seeing in a long time. Friends and strangers high-fived. Our elation built off each other and matched that of the players on screen.

Alas, with just 2 minutes left in the game, Belgium was still ahead. I felt pretty sure we could slip out the bar, get some dinner and not miss much. Shoulders drooped, eyebrows raised, knuckles clenched. Each attempt at a goal brought only momentary excitement.

And then.

“I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” The refrain started, and almost immediately filled the bar. “I believe that we will win” with clapping and pounding. Being musically inclined, the rhythm caught me up and my words fell in sync. I watched bodies chant, eyes glued overhead. A distantly familiar feeling.

The last time I felt this was the night of Obama’s first election as we screamed “Yes We Can” and later “Yes We Did” and we danced in the streets of Oakland, high-fived and hugged everyone around us. That night we celebrated so much more than one man’s election. We celebrated all of us having made it where we were, that all of us did and all of us can.

Later, we wound up disappointed. We knew we would be. And we were disappointed on Tuesday night too when the U.S lost the soccer match.

But I was happy. I was reminded that we have a huge potential for hope. You wouldn’t often think it from talking to us humans. Many of us have already given in to the inevitability of climate change and environmental degradation, we’ve accepted that oppression runs the day and that isms like racism and sexism just are what they are. Even individually it seems many of us have decided our lives have already hit the peak, and there’s nowhere else to go.

But Tuesday night I saw the truth: we actually want to hope. Even with just a minute left of the game we were already losing, we wanted to band together, we wanted to clench fists, we wanted to chant and stomp, to sweat and grumble, to throw our arms around a stranger, and hope hope hope.

After Tuesday night it doesn’t matter that we lost. I believe that we will win.